One year ago we sold our car and braced ourselves for living the next twelve months car-free. I’d love to say this was a purely experimental move, for environmental and social reasons, but the truth is we were skint and couldn’t afford to run a car anymore. So for the past year we’ve been entirely at the mercy of public transport, aside from the occasional lift from friends and family/rare taxi to the hospital.
When we made the decision, I intended to document our journey, from a family who’d always had a car (at least since having kids) to one trying to navigate life without, and I even went so far as setting up separate twitter, instagram and blog accounts specifically to post about our experience. However, after writing two blog posts and taking a handful of pictures of the kids waiting for a bus/train, I discovered a few things…the first of which, was that what we were doing- what we still are doing- is not actually remarkable at all.
I actually knew this already, having grown up in a working class family with parents who didn’t drive. My childhood consisted of bus trips and looooong walks everywhere. So I already knew that going without a car didn’t make us special in any way, so much as remarkably privileged that this was the first time we were having to factor bus times/fares into our daily lives. And although Chris did grow-up with a car, he has always commuted to work on public transport, so for him it hasn’t been such a radical change, although I’m sure he’ll agree that it’s still been a massive pain in the arse in many ways.
And that’s the other thing I discovered- that not only did I feel silly documenting something so very ordinary, but also, journeys were often such an absolute ball ache that the idea of reliving them in a blog post, to debate the pros/cons of taking the train vs the car, was just…well…urgh is the noise that springs to mind.
But, our year is almost up, and I have a new job (yippee), which means a car could soon become a real possibility once again (double yippee) so to mark our ‘year without’, I thought I’d do a basic round-up post of what it’s been like.
Buses are rarely on time. We live on one of the busiest bus routes in Europe, buses into the city centre are supposed to be every 3 minutes at peak-times. They are not. My frequent experience is of waiting for one for between 10 and 15 minutes, and then having two or three turn up at once. I don’t know how people in more suburban/rural areas manage without a car. It’s genuinely inconceivable to me. The only reason it has felt do-able for us, is being so close to the city centre with it’s multiple tram stops/train stations/bus services.
Public transport is inordinately expensive. A day ticket on the bus for an adult costs £4.30. A family ticket is £8.50. We got a family and friends railcard which has made local train journeys much more affordable, but we’ve yet to use it to go anywhere further afield, because even with the extra money off, train fares are pricey, plus the idea of more than an hour on a train with the kids makes me feel a bit wobbly at the knees.
Which leads me onto my next point very nicely. Motion sickness. I’ve always had it, but thought I’d grown out of it as an adult. Turns out, what actually happened was that I just learnt to drive and never went on transport for more than ten minutes at a time. That’s obviously had to change this past year, and I’ve spent a lot of journeys staring resolutely out of the window and looking very green around the gills.
(me, every time I’m forced to ride on a hot bus/go backwards on a train)
Public transport forces you to interact with strangers. Rude bus drivers that you’re then at the mercy of until you reach your destination. People with differing hygiene standards, and musical tastes to your own. People with no concept of personal space. People who can’t think of a better way to pass their journey than to spend it judging your parenting. They’re all right there, and you can’t get away from them.
Which again leads nicely onto another major con- kids on transport. When we had a car, yes the kids would sometimes ‘act up’ in the back- hitting each other with a Buzz Lightyear, spilling raisins all over the footwell, waiting until I’m in the outside lane of the M60 doing 85mph to tell me that they’re ‘desperate’ for a wee, etc etc. But at the end of the day, they weren’t bugging anyone other than us. Chris could turn in his seat and offer some kind of bribe/threat, I could pull the car off at the next services to use the toilets, whatever. On public transport- when they’re tired, and want to slump across two seats and fall asleep on a commuter train, when they spill food everywhere, when they whine ‘are we nearly there yet’, you’ve got to be prepared with entertainment (no cd player remember!) and snacks, and reasons why they should stop kicking the chair in front, or why they shouldn’t lick the window, and if they need a wee? Well good luck with that.
Basically you have no control. Which for a control-freak is so bloody difficult. Knowing I could leave my house two hours before an appointment and still not get there on time, because I’m not in charge is infuriating and mind-boggling.
Your world feels a lot smaller. The only times we’ve ventured outside of the city limits have been either to visit family and friends, or when we’ve actually rented a car for the week and decided to make the most of our freedom. Most of the time we’ve just bumbled around locally, because anything else is a. supreme effort and b. bloody expensive.
Also, over the winter, when my anxiety was bad and there was a spate of assaults in my local area, I felt totally trapped in my own home after dark. With the car I’d have had no problem nipping out to the supermarket, or to a dance class or wherever, but faced with the prospect of walking places on my own in the pitch black? No thanks.
Weather. It’s unpredictable. It’s generally shit. And when you’re actually trudging through it in the dark with two miserable kids carrying school bags. and PE kits, and a week’s worth of shopping, then you really fucking FEEL IT, in a way that you don’t when you’re dashing between the front-door and the car.
Which leads me onto- shopping. So many people urged us to do grocery deliveries, not perhaps fully appreciating that the reason we gave up the car was because we were TOTALLY SKINT. So paying for someone to drop the shopping off seemed like a luxury that we couldn’t afford. Hence, more frequent shopping trips and only buying what you can carry (which for me, with my CIDP, and generally piss-poor upper-body strength, is not all that much, it turns out.)
There has to be some…right?! Well- yes. The biggest pro, and the reason we did this was to save money. We’ve probably saved about £300 a month (the cost of car finance, car insurance, car tax, and the annual MOT combined.) We haven’t saved on petrol because the car was really economical, and because that money has been spent on transport instead. So yes, if your car running costs are high (i.e. if you’re paying your car off in instalments, or live in a high insurance area etc) then you will definitely save money, providing you don’t just get taxis everywhere instead of course.
Another pro (I guess?) is that there was a certain novelty value for the first couple of months. The kids had been on buses/trains before but not very frequently, so they were pretty enthusiastic about our transport adventures to begin with, which probably buoyed us a little too. And it’s made me more confident on transport (knowing which stop to get buses from in Piccadilly, and even using the metro for the first time all by myself!)
Environmentally, I figure our impact will have been minimal, but NOT having the car definitely made me realise how many ‘quick trips’ I used to use it for, just because it was there, so that’s something I’ll consciously try to avoid if/when we get a car again in the future.
Which I guess leads onto another pro- which is that health wise I’ve had to do a lot of fucking walking. We all have. So that’s something.
And finally- daydreaming. You can’t do that behind the wheel at high speeds. Long bus journeys, especially if you sit at the front upstairs, jam your headphones in and resolutely refuse to make eye contact with anyone, can be really good for the imagination. I have done so much people-watching this way, and thinking-time is always hugely beneficial for creativity.
So, there you have it. A project I intended to space out over 52 blog posts across twelve months, I’ve just summarised (probably quite badly) in one.
The fact is, if you’re in a position to weigh-up the pros and cons, i.e. you can actually afford to run a car without getting yourself into crippling debt, then to be honest, it’s probably worth it. Unless you live and work in a city centre, and don’t have a driver’s licence, which is possibly the only scenario I could imagine being car-free NOT being a major pain in the ass. But for anyone else- especially people with kids, then I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you don’t have a choice- in which case, my pros and cons aren’t going to be relevant anyway. Needs must when the devil drives, and all that.
(Our new ride, probably.)