Do you remember your first car? More specifically, do you remember what came with it? The car brought responsibility: you were being placed in charge of this lethal weapon, capable of killing you and anyone around it. It was terrifying. But it also brought freedom: you could now go anywhere, unbound by the limitations of public transport.
In the first few months after I passed my test, I experienced both things. I promptly crashed into another car after taking a corner a little too enthusiastically. But I also got to drive my friends on trips, down to Cardiff to get a taste of university life, and out to the countryside for some extreme sledging (Beetles are surprisingly good in the snow). I drove up to Manchester to see my then girlfriend (who promptly dumped me, but that’s a different story).
The first car I bought myself a few years after graduating holds perhaps my greatest memories of the freedom a car brings. I had been living in Reading and working in Maidenhead for two or three years when I finally decided it was time to buy a car. Until that point, I had been getting public transport everywhere and that worked fine for me. I bought a car more because I liked cars than because I thought I really needed one. Though I was reaching the stage in my career where I was starting to go to meetings on my own and many of the meeting locations were on business parks outside nearby towns and cities. Hard to access by public transport.
Once I got the car though, I realised how much I had been missing. I stumbled across a local lake where you could water-ski and wakeboard – something I had grown up doing. Without a car this facility would have been utterly inaccessible to me. Now I could stick my wakeboard on the passenger seat (not much space in my BMW Coupe) in the morning and detour on the way back from work to the lake. What freedom!
This all came to mind because my neighbourhood is in the middle of an intense debate about traffic and cars. There is a planned scheme, of which I am very much in favour, to trial a low traffic neighbourhood or LTN. The scheme is controversial. Some people don’t like the idea of limiting where cars can go. Some have concerns that the main roads and those bordering the scheme will be negatively affected.
I have some sympathy with the latter concerns, which speak to a larger issue of class divides in developing neighbourhoods. The leafy backstreets tend to benefit first from LTNs, with traffic displaced onto main roads that tend to have more flats and fewer private homes. But ultimately, we have to do something about congestion, road deaths, and pollution. And LTNs are what’s on the table.
The evidence supporting LTNs is thin, but growing. They have an immediate and very positive impact on the streets where measures are added. In the trial, my street will no longer be a rat-run for cars trying to escape clogged main roads or cut between them. This, I hope, will prevent the street being used as a drag strip: cars frequently top 40 miles an hour (by my estimate – I don’t have a speed camera) down this narrow 20 limit. Over time there is some evidence emerging that LTNs reduce car use overall.
What many LTN proponents really want though is to reduce car ownership. They make sound points about the impact cars have on our streets even when they aren’t moving. Parked cars take up a lot of our shared spaces. They make it less safe for pedestrians and cyclists. They frequently block pavements. And they make it harder for kids to use the streets for play.
I don’t disagree with any of this. And yet, we currently own three cars. Well, two and a half: two are parked on the street while my EV project takes up our small driveway. One of those cars is practical. It’s the 10-year-old MPV in my wife’s name that carries us (in non-lockdown times) to family gatherings, walks in the countryside, to the shops and to the tip.
The others…are not.
My little Alfa, ultimately to be replaced by the EV when that is complete, is used for practical purposes once a week, on the rare occasion we need two cars so that I can run one child to dance classes. This is one of those journeys that is notionally do-able by public transport. But doing so would mean writing off my afternoon (I couldn’t get there back before having to turn around again), and be very costly. The bus fares are absurd (£6.80 for me and my daughter), and since there is no waiting room, I would need to spend two hours in a rather expensive café nearby.
People say owning a car is expensive, but the Alfa currently costs me less than £50 a month to own. It only cost me £1200 to buy and with prices on the rise, I will probably sell it for that or more. That £10 a month over the cost of public transport and coffee buys me eight hours a month of free time and an object that gives me great joy. For all the issues, that still feels like a good deal.
For the rest of the week, my Alfa is largely an ornament. It’s not an expensive car, but it is beautiful. Having it there reminds me of that first sense of freedom I felt when I first got my Beetle or my BMW.
The car’s the star
The problem for those seeking to reduce car ownership is that we have built our world around cars for the last hundred years or so. Because this is how we have structured our world, cars don’t just bring a sense of freedom, they bring actual freedom over and above what is achievable via public transport or cycling – especially for families. Is there a public cost to that freedom? Absolutely. But a lot of people will feel they are giving up something very significant if they gave up their car. Purging the streets of cars will only serve to further restrict those freedoms to the wealthy, who can afford to store their cars off the street.
In the long term, I think we can achieve these ends without disproportionate effects on the less wealthy. Though they are further away than many think, we will, eventually, have self-driving cars. These will make point-to-point travel in relative luxury more affordable than car ownership. They will park and charge themselves in out of town warehouses rather than on streets. They’re not an ideal solution for everything: mass transit still makes more sense for busy routes and intercity travel. But they should offer the freedom we crave with less of the downsides.
We can’t wait thirty years to tackle this problem though. We need to find ways to give people the freedom a car brings without its consequences. That means trialling schemes like the LTNs. And it means finding alternatives to car ownership that work today, investing in public transport and cycling infrastructure, minimising the car’s impact on other road users. Car lovers like me might have to make some sacrifices or at the least pay more for keeping a second (or even third) car on the street.
But the only way we make rapid progress on issues of congestion and indeed wider environmental issues is to make change a net luxury. Right now, the loss of the car feels too painful to too many people. And any threat to it will continue to be met with anger.