I don’t know what prompted me to ask the question, but I’m glad I did. Yesterday, I posted the following on Twitter:
As you can see, 24 hours later it had been seen nearly half a million times, and had garnered well over a thousand replies, which, as I write, are still coming in minute by minute. It obviously struck a chord and certainly sparked up a debate.
I followed the initial question up with a couple of adjustments, fully confessing to the extraordinary disparity in the provision of public transport options in London and elsewhere in the UK, without which my decision to go without owning (not driving, you’ll note, but owning) a car would have been much, much harder, if not impossible.
I also made it very clear that I was not conducting research, as such. There is no science in asking a question like this of your followers. There is, I would completely acknowledge, a deep-set bias in the replies, given the high percentage of metropolitan snowflake elites that follow me (me, with my virtue-signalling trans flag username to boot!).
But unlike my recent car-related post about the Ineos Grenadier’s “toot” horn for cyclists, the replies to this tweet were for almost without exception devoid of abuse. Even when a builder replied with the reasonably well-worn “Can’t fit my cement mixer on the bus”, (a suggestion no one had actually made but never mind), what followed in response was good-natured and funny, as people tried to figure out how he could transport his team of plasterers and all the supplied he needed, as well as the mixer, on cargo bikes. The plasterers, someone suggested, could arrive by “triple”, like the Goodies (one for the kids). It was a nice exchange.
The thing is that, contained within the question, was an acknowledgment of the problem. The crucial first clause, “if you could”, was routinely ignored by many users keen to jump straight to why they couldn’t, rather than entertaining the hypothesis of a situation in which they could.
The “why we can’ts” were mostly fully justified: how do you get around the countryside, transport kids/dogs/shopping/elderly parents, when you can’t rely on any sensible form of alternative? To which my answer would be, a resounding, “No idea!” But that was where the debate began and ended for a large number of these tweeters. Though many also expressed regret that things were like this, others simply posted their reading of this reality like a full-stop to the conversation. Can't.
Most, indeed almost all of the “I gave up owning a car and it was the best choice I ever made” respondents lived in London, a few in Bristol, Birmingham, Lincolshire, Scotland etc. But mostly in London. However, I noticed a really surprising trend among the carless; something I’d not thought of before, and which I wasn’t expecting. And given the large sample size of replies, I was interested to see how often it cropped up: Many people who have never owned a car or even learned to drive, and seemed quite happy in their choices, had grown up in families where no parent had driven and no car was stationed outside the house or on the drive. There is therefore a certain hereditary behavioural thing going on here as well, it seems.
Another misreading of my original question arose from the glossing over of the word “own”. My point was about “ownership”. Some people took it that I was somehow suggesting they never drive again, and objected strongly to that notion. But, I drive. I hire cars with some frequency throughout the year, and cannot do a lot of my work without one; so I drive a fair amount still (not ever from choice, it must be said). But my question about ownership versus drivership is significant I think. When I had a set of car keys on a hook by the door, and a Renault Scenic waiting to be started up, three paces from the house, I simply used it so many times when there was in fact no need. Its mere paid-for presence was too tempting to resist. I wilfully ignored the eye-watering costs of owning it and keeping it full of fuel, insured and with a valid MOT. Every individual time I used it, those costs were hidden from me.
Finally, one of the big learnings I have made from this unscientific interaction, is that a lot of people freely admit to loving their cars, and to loving driving. On the one hand, I was surprised to read this, though I shouldn’t have been. In my car-antipathy to which I freely confess, I had forgotten that people actual drive for fun, for leisure. They “go for a drive”. To read people saying this out loud kind of shocked me, because it made me realise that the urge to self-regulate and limit car use to all but essential travel is not a widespread view at all. For many, there is great joy in driving, and any suggestion that this right should be withdrawn (not that anyone is actually doing that) seems to elicit a fierce response; one which goes to the heart of the backlash against LTNs and 15 minute cities. It is, for certain drivers, about personal freedoms; things which arouse deep passion. No matter that the act of driving a car for fun imposes pollution, danger and noise on others. It is a right of the individual.
I too have loved driving. When I passed my test, and for a good decade later, it felt like a great journey, a rite of passage, a genuine thrill. Cars are designed to impart these feelings in the driver; empowerment, pleasure, cossetting. They are truly remarkable things, the way they are designed these days with heated seats of immense comfort, great sound systems, a cockpit of delights. The astonishing rush of power you can control simply by lightly flexing an ankle; it is close to miraculous. This is powerful stuff. I get it.
I still want us to head away from a world built for cars. They are amazing - but that's not all they are. They also pollute, injure and waste space. Reducing their use is surely not a controversial aim. But this need sustained and significant investment in rural bus services, genuine efforts made to catch up with other comparable economies whose services embarrass what we have at our disposal in the UK, real alternatives being offered, not marginalised. And an accompanying paradigm shift in our assumptions that the car is king. Is this all too much to ask?
Anyway, thank you for reading this, and thank you, Twitter, for an unusually instructive and thought-provoking exchange. The comments are open below, if you want to carry on discussing what is a massive, urgent question; one of the biggest (and boy we have a lot of big ones) that we face right now. Please let us know what you think.