Saturday, June 12, 2010

The illusion of freedom in the age of entitlement

I passed my driving test a couple of months before my 18th birthday. My dad, (rather generously, given that I drove his car into a fence four days after my 17th) used to let me borrow his car, a pale green Austin Maestro that I loved driving. I had a couple of close calls, but never drove it into anything else, and a few months later I got my own car, a red 2cv that I loved driving even more.

Where I grew up, everyone had a dad, and everyone's dad had a car. Sometimes their mum had a car too, a smaller one. My 2cv was someone's mum's car. There was one family where there was a dad who didn't have a car. They used to cycle everywhere. Everyone thought they were odd. Dads didn't ride bikes. Bikes were for kids, mums (a few, including mine), and teenagers who hadn't passed their driving tests yet.

It was a long time ago, and a long way away. And, looking back, astonishingly suburban. But basically, if you could drive, you could go places. We mostly went to each other's houses, or to pubs (though we mostly didn't drink and drive) or to the beach, or just drove round aimlessly smoking cigarettes and listening to tapes in the small hours of the morning. There was a road running across the Moss that I used to drive down with the roof off and with my friends standing up in the back screaming. We would give each other petrol money, 20p here and 50p there, and keep our cars running just above empty.

Cars were like extensions of our personalities. They were certainly extensions of our personal space. I never took the 2cv to university -- there was nowhere in Cambridge I needed to go that I couldn't walk to -- but I drove up and down the A34 every weekend in her to visit my Significant Ex when he was living in Oxford and I was accidentally living in Andover, and when I properly moved to Oxford in 1994 she came too. We were a two car couple, and when we split up I drove up to Boars Hill and sat on a bench wrapped in a blanket, gazing at the view with a head full of white noise.

When I got together with M, we were a two car couple too, but after we moved in together it became clear that we didn't need them both. Mine was the one that needed to go -- only a welding enthusiast should own a 20 year old 2cv -- but psychologically, I struggled with the prospect of not having my own car. What if I wanted to... go somewhere? Well, said M, you can use mine. But what if I wanted to... leave? Well, said M, there are taxis. And if you find it unbearably oppressive not to have a getaway vehicle parked outside, you can always get another one.

After a while, I got used to sharing a car, and pretty soon after that, I realised that a burden had lifted... no more MOTs, no more insurance renewing, no more tax discs, no more checking tyres, no more cans of WD40 on a cold morning, no more remembering to renew RAC membership, no more welding bills. And I could still go pretty much anywhere I wanted. And I haven't left yet.

But we haven't had a (working) car at all for about four months now. The circumstances surrounding this are less than desirable, which is one thing. But there's also the reality of life without a car.

And I am genuinely surprised at how ... nice it is. The fact that it's summer helps, but still.

1. Getting to work. Often, I used to drive. I ought to cycle, but it's such a faff, with the lights and the clothing and the negotiating of bike through house. And there's a hill. I feel genuinely bad about this, but I'm always running late, and the car was there for the driving. But I have discovered how easy it is to get the bus. It can be quicker than cycling, and has an easier start, in that I just fling myself out of the house in the right direction. No paraphernalia required, and on the way home I don't have to find a parking space. Bargain.

2. Not having to buy petrol. Have you SEEN the price of petrol recently? It used to make my blood run cold, but now I sit on the bus and smile.

3. Deliveries. I already knew about Amazon, Tescopolis, Ocado and Just Kosher (for those pre-Christmas pickle orders...). But I now know that Majestic Wine will deliver for free. With glasses, if you are having a party. And it turns out I live in easy walking distance of Majestic Wine, and can carry 48 (well, 47 in the end) glasses back to them with no problem. B&Q will deliver a shed, and then let you get in the van with it to direct them to the allotment. The Pink Giraffe delivers for £2 (or free for bigger orders). When I had a car I never used to get food delivered, and it's a brilliant idea. And I was pining slightly for garden centres, but then I discovered the Real Seed Catalogue.

4. Taxis. We got the bus to Waitrose, did our shopping, called a minicab while we were at the checkout and it took us and all our shopping home for four quid. I wanted to go to swim in Hinksey Pool in the pouring rain. We got a cab there, and then walked into town afterwards and caught the bus back.

5. Trains and bikes. We went to a wedding in Wallingford. We caught the train to Cholsey with our bikes, cycled to friends in Wallingford for lunch, got changed, cycled to the Town Hall for the wedding, wheeled our bikes to the river and put them on the wedding party boat to the reception at the Beetle and Wedge, then cycled back to Cholsey for the last train back to Oxford.

6. Just bikes. When it's not pouring with rain, it's a lovely bike ride to Hinksey Pool via backstreets and towpaths... I did know that already, but I still used to drive it.

7. Locality. The furthest we ventured during our lovely, lovely week in Robin Hood's Bay was Whitby, and we walked there. And then got the bus back. We bought all our food in the local shops and drank all our beer in the local pubs. The local shops were pretty limited, but we went with what was there. Vegans might have struggled, but we had fried fish, fish pie, fish soup, and went out for fish and chips. M asked the woman in the village shop if she had any spinach: she didn't, but she ordered us some in for the next day. As part of that conversation, she recommended the gingerbread and Wensleydale combination which was a highlight of the week. If we'd had wheels, we might not have discovered the beck, eaten so much ice cream from the van on the beach, or devoted three hours to building the best sandcastle in Christendom.

8. Mutual favours. When I want to go to the supermarket, which isn't very often, I do a deal with ex-housemate S. I get a lift there and back, and she gets help managing the tantrums in the frozen food section.

And coming up, possibly, joining a car club. Collective ownership of the means of getting to the tip. A tiny part of a great leap forwards? Let's hope so. We are the generation that bought more cars, and we're getting what we deserve.

This is unless the government start bigging up car clubs, at which point I'm going to go right off the idea. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, turning out to be a bunch of fuckers. More on this anon.




Blogger Miles said...

One of your best posts ever, Joella, and beautifully titled. The one word that sums up the way I feel now that I do not have a car is "freedom". It's a freedom akin to the one obtained from decluttering - the freedom of simplicity.

But I can't believe that over a fortnight has passed and this is the only comment.

Does this mean that none of your readers can empathise? Are they unable to imagine their own lives without a car? Or are they just all off enjoying the sunshine?

Maybe the surprising ease with which we have managed to give up having a car (easier than giving up smoking) is down to our particular circumstances - no children to ferry around, work from home or on a direct bus route, good shops within walking distance.

I'm hoping to hear your readers' thoughts on this, even if they are contrary ones.

10:28 am  
Blogger Spine said...

I didn't comment

a) because my comments always seem to kill threads on here.

b) because The Axis of Diesel was broken into last week and I was too busy being free at the Opel garage to write. Cost: 198 liras for new window, 620 liras for new ipod (Well over UK RRP: Rip-Off Turkey).

As I've said earlier, a year into car ownership, all it's really given me is new reasons to dislike my fellow man.

Also, I'm nine times more likely to die here than in the UK (deaths per passenger-kilometer shockingly high).

Finally, I like the idea of a Car Club. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing Clarkson would join by mistake and then flee screaming.


2:58 pm  
Blogger Miles said...

Oh, Spine. It's been too long. Plans must be made.

3:57 pm  
Anonymous jonathan said...

Oh I wanted to comment as soon as I read this post then didn't get round to it! We've been car-free for eighteen months now (although I do have a scooter for work purposes). Overall our experience has been very similar to yours and liberation is certainly the word which springs to mind. The only major inconvenience has been the one you mentioned at the end- getting to the tip. The council will come and collect stuff but I do miss piling a yard full of accumulated rubbish into the back of the Punto on a Sunday afternoon, driving round the corner, and throwing it over a wall. That was a liberating feeling and one I can't easily have any more!

11:24 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

Spine, I am v sorry to hear about the A of D. Velba got broken into once, only nothing was actually broken, it was more that M had forgotten to lock the doors. And nothing was actually taken, because I was far too paranoid to leave anything in the car, as anyone who has watched me hoik a satnav and accessories around a supermarket could testify. I wonder if you remember the time my Significant Ex got his windscreen stolen?

Jonathan, I'm with you on the tip. I have a jar of dead batteries an old electric toothbrush I just don't know what to do with. Though I did once see a woman arrive at the tip in a black cab full of bin liners, and that was pretty cool.

11:40 pm  
Blogger Andy said...

Great post, Joella; you make a very compelling argument.

Tip trips - as you know, I will rave about the possibilities that my Xtracycle has given me, but in your situation (nowhere to easily store it!) it's just not practical. Howver,small trailers (such as this) could be an excellent solution to the big-load days - store it by the shed when not needed!

9:42 pm  
Anonymous PAUL said...

Great post on riding your bike to Hinksey Pool on a lovely summer day. Sounds absolutely magnificent.

10:04 am  

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