(Re)cycling the city: life without a car

Guest post:

Liz Sharp is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Town & Regional Planning, University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the governance of the environment, and specifically the processes through which the public are engaged (or not) in making and implementing environmental policy.

Cycling in Amsterdam

[image courtesy Amsterdamized]

Cars are generally seen as an essential attribute for middle class lifestyles in most of the UK and in many developed countries; unlike many of my compatriots taking Masters degrees in the 1990s, I owned one (the legacy of a job that was difficult to reach by bus). But in 2004 I got rid of my car, I have not regretted this decision in the decade since. Here I reflect on the advantages and problems that my car-free life creates for me. If we are to begin to address carbon emissions in the way that climate scientists say that we have to, the car-free life needs to be both attractive and realistic for a majority of people. as such, my life illustrates the things that we need to change if we wish to enable a (more) car-free lifestyle for a greater section of the population.

Let’s start up with the advantages of not owning a car.

First, I am scared of mechanics – they know stuff I don’t, and that puts me in a particular power position (i.e. having no power) that I don’t like. I find it much more pleasant to only need to negotiate with bicycle mechanics: I know a little bit more about bicycles than I do about cars but, more importantly, because I am one of the cycling minority, cycling mechanics respect me more (I think!) than motor mechanics ever respected a ‘woman driver’. It is interesting how these very personal negotiations around the everyday matters of maintenance and purchase are part of the landscape in which we make our transport decisions – as such they are more important than they might at first appear. A car-centric world generally puts women, children and older people in a more dependent position, which is not pleasant for anyone.

Second, I get fit – or at least, not too unfit! I like good food and could easily put on weight; by requiring myself to walk or cycle to work, and even to get groceries, I build ‘incidental exercise’ into my life. I like that because, while I can enjoy going for a run, it is not always what I feel like doing of an evening. Needing to exercise (and needing to be outside) just to go anywhere feels good for both my mental and physical health.

Third, it is cheaper. The AA estimate that it costs just under £2000 to run even the cheapest car, and that excludes the cost of petrol. In a non-London location, that’s equivalent to well over 200 taxi rides: i.e. one every other day. During my carless decade I have slowly learnt to become freer about taking a taxi than I used to be – which means I get a taxi maybe twice a month now.

So, what then to the problems?

The biggest issue I face with not owning a car is not being able to get to the countryside – but it is slightly more complicated than that. I have chosen to live in locations where there is good public transport (more on that in the next point), and where I can either walk or take public transport into the wilder countryside that is important to my leisure life. The problem is that my friends are not always available to go with me when I want to go; moreover, if I access ‘communal’ means of going on walks (such as ramblers or meet-up groups), they frequently meet at locations that are not easily accessible by public transport, which require a long wait from an infrequent service, or they start at a time when public transport access is impossible. Effectively, the problem is not that I don’t own a car, but that most other people do own one – and that I am being (sort of) anti-social in not fitting in with the group norm.

The second issue is that locations with good public transport can cost more money. I have a good job and no children, so I can afford to live where I choose – and I certainly do select locations that fit my needs in terms of public transport access, both to the facilities of a city and to the countryside. Were I less financially cushioned, this might be a much more difficult decision, demanding compromises between my convenience and the money that transport would demand from me.

The third issue connects to DIY, bulk waste, and other household situations where one is generally expected to have transport. Yes, I can persuade my elderly parents to visit and act as chauffeur while I buy a lawnmower or take waste to the dump; equally, I could get friends to give me a lift, or get a taxi. However, it all involves negotiation and effort – and mostly I end up not bothering. This type of stuff is annoying effort even when you do own a car, but it can become overwhelming when you don’t – particularly as many people think that you are extremely odd in choosing not to own a car. Of course, there are routes around this: for a price, the Council will pick up bulk waste, and most shops will be willing to deliver if one pays, but that means one has to be in during the day, and available on other people’s schedules to make things work.

So, I have listed three things in favour of the car-free life, and three against. However, I am not about to change my mind: my personal equation is quite clearly and unambiguously weighed in favour of the non-car life.

What is notable is that the things that put me off not owning a car are not really about me, but about what the world does to me – and how, to a small extent, I feel myself being constructed as an awkward flag-waving environmentalist maverick. This makes me so angry, because really I think it would be such a much nicer urban environment if everyone was able to do like me, and to live a life that involved walking and cycling. Just imagine how pleasant the streets would be!

But I know that many don’t have the choice, and that home, and family and the complexities of managing household logistics require that vehicle. (I also know that cars are just one part of the equation, and we need to do something about home insulation and flying as well). But if the little case of my own life can provide a model for wider society, it seems a car-free lifestyle requires:

• better, more frequent, and more reliable public transport to the countryside, particularly at the weekend;

• more investment in bicycle-oriented and pedestrian-oriented infrastructure to help non-drivers feel safe and prioritised;

• a ‘white-van’ taxi service to carry bulk waste, DIY material, bicycles and other stuff (rather than people) between one place and another;

• and, more generally, more people not owning a car, so I don’t seem so odd for being one of them!

There are countries and cities that have made the political decision to invest in their cycling and walking infrastructure in a way that enables more people to live without a car. If the Netherlands, Portland and Bogota can do it, why not Sheffield?