Traffic is me in a car
N.B. Longer blog entry than usual
For the last twenty-eight years of my life I have lived on a main road. In that time I’ve noticed a huge increase in traffic – lorries have become longer, cars have got larger, road surfaces have been placed under intolerable pressure, pavement edges have become bitten and chewed and cyclists continue to take their life in their hands when they cycle along any main road in the UK.
A mile or so up the road from our home is one of Britain’s most expensive prep schools. Every morning I see a procession of SUVs driving past – huge four-wheel-drive cars with an expensively coiffured parent in the driving seat and their treasured offspring strapped firmly in the back, protected from the elements as if they were a tiny pellet of enriched uranium.
We’ve all been encouraged to examine and reduce our carbon footprints and perhaps one of the biggest creators of carbon that we own is the one which sits outside our home patiently waiting for us in all weathers.
From Top Gear to Formula One, the British attachment to the internal combustion engine is deeply rooted in the national psyche. Talk about car-sharing amongst a group of friends and you are on your own. No one wants to surrender the freedom that owning a car provides for them. It has become a lifelong appendage, from the carefree moment we pass our driving test, to the end point where a policeman leans in through the driver’s window and gently suggests that, for our own good and the safety of other road users, we shouldn’t be driving and dribbling at the same time.
It was this attachment that I was keen to test. Did I really need to own a car in the twenty-first century? Could I survive on a mixture of bicycle (for short trips), bus and train for longer trips, with the option of a shared car for the journeys in between? When a neighbour suggested the idea of a car sharing scheme, between two households, I leapt at the opportunity to change my lifestyle. I handed my car keys and registration documents into the local garage and decided to ignore the look on the garage owner’s face; the slow rolling of the eyeballs as if to say ‘it will all end in tears’.
There was quite a bit of paperwork to sort out. The insurance company could not understand the principle of car-sharing. I visualised the telesales representative frantically looking for a tick-able ‘car sharing’ box on their computer screen. In the end, because I run a business, it was easiest for me to register the car and have my neighbours as named drivers on my policy. My premium leapt from £270 to £480.
We drew up some working guidelines. As cars are at their most polluting in the first few miles (until the engine has properly warmed up), the car would ‘charge’ us £1 per mile for the first three miles and then 27p per mile for every mile after that. The costs were calculated on the real cost of owning a car – depreciation, fuel, tax, MOT, servicing and insurance. So a trip to the recycling centre would cost me £3.27 in real motoring costs. I found that I became really creative about maximising the use of the car on short journeys. It reminded me of the George Burns joke: ‘You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there’.
The car could be booked ahead through a shared online calendar. There would be clashes, when alternative arrangements would need to be made, like the time when my neighbours booked a ten day holiday in Cornwall and I suddenly found myself at the mercy of the local bus timetable. A bus ride to a meeting in Bridgwater took one hour and ten minutes, when I knew my car could do it in thirty minutes. I had to factor this extra time into my appointments. The bus to Castle Cary railway station only ran on Sundays for some inexplicable reason. The bus for my fortnightly Quaker prison visit stopped running at 5.30pm, meaning that I could get there but couldn’t get back. And it was very hard trying to load a tripod and video camera onto a bike.
When it worked, it worked really well, but I became increasingly frustrated that the opportunity to simply ‘get up and go’ had gone. I needed to check whether the shared car was free first and then book it, if it was. Sometimes the online calendar didn’t work and I would turn up to drive the car away only to find that my neighbours had planned to do exactly the same thing at the same time. I had lost the freedom that many of my friends said they would not be prepared to relinquish. The car that I owned previously was an extension of my personality, my own miniature ecosystem. It had pens and pieces of paper, scribbles of ideas and phone numbers, old parking tickets, sticks of chewing gum, a water bottle, loose change for parking meters, a container of windscreen fluid, a few of my favourite CDs, and empty carrier bags for trips to the shop and the recycling centre. The shared car was to be kept clean at all times (part of our working agreement) and was to be treated like a hired car.
We ran the car-sharing project for six months before I conceded that it wasn’t working for me. My neighbours were remarkably generous and philosophical about our experiment. They had our shared car revalued and gave me back 50%. Cars, of course, depreciate in value, and the capital I was left with didn’t allow me to buy back the car I had casually sold six months earlier. I crawled back to the garage and endured what could be described as some good-hearted banter of the ‘well I told you so’ variety. They had nothing on their books I could afford so I went on e-bay and bid for a small car within my budget. The seller turned out to be a retired policeman in Maidstone with a haircut to match. He encouraged me to take his eight year old VW Polo for a drive. As I pulled out onto the M20, I asked him what area of police work he did. ‘I was a class one driver with the Kent traffic police,’ he laughed, ‘and you can indicate and move into the middle lane now’. I felt like I was taking my driving test all over again…..
What have I learnt?
- it is very hard to be self-employed in a rural area and not have a car, particularly when you run workshops and seminars, have to meet clients and collect or return equipment
- that public transport is sporadic (although the bus service to our nearby town is very good) but you cannot always depend on it.
- that sometimes the buses don’t turn up at all. I do most of my longer journeys by train whenever I can – but the car, or a cab, is essential to get you and your baggage to the station.
- that I can quite happily own a smaller, more frugal, car and hire a larger one for those times when I need to collect my daughter and her belongings from university or take the family on holiday.
- that I am very grateful for the freedom that a car provides me with and now try to use it as responsibly and thoughtfully as I can as well as using my bike for local journeys.
My daughter, with a wisdom beyond her years, said, ‘Dad, you need three things in your business – a car, a phone and a computer. You can’t run your business without them.’
While the car sharing scheme did not work for me, I am sure that it could work for people who have a regular travel pattern (perhaps a commuting run, with occasional weekend use) or for those who perhaps only need access to a car two or three times a week. For the rest of us in rural areas, car sharing may tick a lot of green boxes, but you need to think very carefully before making a commitment. Trust me.