It was spring 2012 when I went behind my family’s back and sold the family car. I had been carting my wife and six children around in it for ten years. It was a big car – it had to be – and getting shot of it was, I suppose, a big decision, though I suspected it would turn out to be no big deal. I was right. About six weeks passed before anyone else in the house even noticed it had disappeared.
“Where’s our car gone, Daddy?”
“What that big red thing with toadstools growing on it? I got rid of it.”
It was during its MOT and after its new tax disc had been bought that I concluded we’d be better off without it – without the hassle, the cost, the basic maintenance that some enjoy but I found a joyless chore. The vehicle was hardly used – I worked from home, my wife took a bus or walked to work and most of the children were old enough to get around on their own. We shopped locally or had deliveries, and who would willingly drive to Westfield or the West End?
The car’s departure meant the end of a significant domestic worry and expense. It also meant the start of a deeper appreciation of London’s public transport networks and, I like to think, a fuller understanding of why people move around the city in the different ways they do – including by private motor car.
For me, it has been bus, Underground, Overground or DLR ever since. Cycling has never much interested me, even as a sporty child (same aggravations as a car, I reckon – fixing it, storing it, parking it, worrying about it getting nicked, plus, of course, no fun when it rains). For a watcher of London, including its streets, there’s no better vantage point than the top deck of a bus. Tube and rail services are speedy and direct. And then there’s the walking option. Often, I will disembark before a journey’s end just to appreciate the final mile of our enthralling city on foot.
Public transport and walking are relaxing, apart from the occasional rowdy bus passenger, overcrowded carriage or two-wheeled pavement invader treating you as a slalom pole. I work long, long hours. I’m bad at switching off. When travelling through the city I don’t want to have to look where I’m going, worry about wrong turnings, or watch out for other vehicles on the road. I want to think, observe, reflect and unwind. Even sleep.
Fewer cars on its roads would be a blessing for London. Citywide state-of-the-art road user pricing is the nearest thing to a silver bullet solution to congestion and pollution there is. Yet being without a car has also served to remind me that for some people they are indeed essential. Yes, you can transport small children to a jelly-and-ice-cream function six boroughs away and all the way back home again by bus and Tube, but the experience can be stressful and knackering. With a car, they are strapped in the back, fed snacks and entertainment and, with luck, they nod off. Relief.
Cars and, of course, vans, are vital for some lines of work. And owning a car can be about things other than work or convenience. A few years ago I chaired a public meeting at Hackney Town Hall at which local people put questions to the borough’s Mayor, Philip Glanville. Hackney had made its parking regulations tighter. Not everyone was pleased.
The reasons for that varied, and I had limited sympathy with most. But there was a family group near the front whose argument has stayed with me. For them, owning a car and being able to park it cheaply and easily was a matter of taking responsibility for the personal safety of loved ones. The dad of the household explained that he was anxious for his fellow family members. Getting them from A to B secure inside a motorised cocoon was, to him, quite obviously a superior form of movement around London than any of the alternatives.
You might think that over-anxious, even absurd, but the sentiment seemed heartfelt. Such views should not be mocked or dismissed out of hand. The lesson here, it seems to me, is that streets policy must seek to reconcile different transport preferences and needs as sensitively as possible. London-wide road-pricing, calibrated sensibly, could help with that complex task. A small mileage fee might be thought a reasonable price to pay to drive through calmer, clearer streets.
Have I missed owning a car? Practically never. I might have to hire one once or twice a year, a process, with its insurance traps and “service fees”, is an ordeal I could do without. The car-less city is a distant fantasy, but my life in London is undoubtedly better for being car-free.
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