I have been inspired to write a post about living car free based on my interactions with friends who are car-dependent. I don’t usually think of or refer to myself as “car-free”. I also don’t think of or refer to myself as helicopter-free, tractor-free or snowmobile-free. I suspect that most other people don’t either, but the car has an almost sacred position in our society, so much so that not having or using one apparently deserves a special term.
Guide to living “car-free” in (Greater) Manchester:
1) Distance: People who depend on cars tend to have a very distorted perspective on how far away things actually are. I know someone who lives less that 300 m from a bus stop at which a once-every-five minutes bus runs along a main road (with bus lanes) to a final stop about 300 m from their workplace. Because she has been dependent on the car for so long, 300 m (2 minutes walking) is perceived as too far away.
If you are thinking about reducing your dependence on a car but don’t want to take the plunge and get rid of it straight away, my advice to you is to try and go somewhere on foot first. Some people forget just how easy and stress-free walking is. Walk to somewhere nearby that you tend to drive to, it probably won’t take much longer and you’ll start to remember that it isn’t that far, and it isn’t that hard.
If it is still a bit too far to the nearest station for you to walk, consider getting a folding bike such as a Brompton or a folding Raleigh Twenty.
2) Cost: If you can get past the distorted perspective of distance, the next hurdle is the cost of public transport. Whilst it should be lower, car owners tend to inflate it by comparing the cost of public transport to the cost of fuel for their car for that journey. It is important to avoid this trap. The best way I can think of is to average it out over a year. Compare one year’s use of public transport to one year’s worth of fuel, parking fees, insurance, vehicle excise duty, maintenance and the initial cost of the car (or the total cost of a car loan taken out to cover it), minus the likely return for it at the end of its life with you divided by the number of years you are likely to own the car for. Suddenly the car is starting to look a lot more expensive. A good way to look at this is to think of it as a percentage of your income. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 10-20% of an average person’s income. If you don’t like your job much, think of it as time spent at work; for 15% of income that is 6 hours a week of a 40 hour week to pay for a car.
3) Convenience: Sometimes you may need to travel late at night or early in the morning. For me, these times tend to be parties and pub outings, where a car would be useless anyway. People who come to parties by car tend to leave very early because they need to abstain from drinking, and they seem not to have a very good time. If you find you need to travel regularly at all hours, a bike can be very useful. Remember the re-discovering of walking, and learning that a mile is really not that far after-all? Well its the same for cycling, except you will discover in a matter of weeks that 5 or 10 miles is really not that far on a bike. I’d bet that anyone could ride 5 miles in half an hour, even on a BMX dressed in a chicken suit. Once again perception of distance is the problem. I’d be willing to bet that that kind of distance range covers the needs of most people, especially if used as a supplement to public transport.
A bike can in fact be more convenient than a car. It will take you from door to door, you can avoid a lot of traffic jams by filtering along the stationary cars and areas such as canal towpaths and other non-car-worthy rights of way can be used to get around, in addition to the roads. The pushing of special magical underpants and high-visibility clothing by the motoring lobbies may be partially designed as a barrier to the natural hop-on and go convenience of cycling.
4) Weather: As Billy Connolly said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing, so get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.” This applies to cycles too, there is a secret weapon cyclists can use against the rain which has long been forgotten here in the UK; mudguards. In all but the heaviest rain the vast majority of water hitting you will be thrown at you from your tyres. This is also the least pleasant water, containing filth from the road too. With mudguards you can avoid a lot of the wet, with the rest of the work being done with a raincoat, or if you want to go faster for longer, some bike-specific quick-drying clothes. You can always carry some spare clothes in a pannier if you think its going to be really rainy. If you get the bus or the train, this isn’t much of an issue anyway.
On a snow day, most cars will be rendered useless, so its not worth owning one on the basis that it will keep you mobile in the event of snow. During the Great Snow of 2010 I cycled everywhere, and I was a lot more sure-footed than the cars and a lot of the people. Just lower your saddle a bit and lower the pressure in your tyres (and make sure they are not overly skinny tyres). If you fall off its not that bad, the snow makes your fall happen in slow motion, giving you time to right yourself or a soft landing of you can’t.
On a nice day, being on the bike beats car or public transport hands-down.
5) That one thing: Whenever I discuss the ease of not having a car with someone for this long, it is common for them to give an example of one specific thing they believe is impossible without a car. Often it involves carrying a large object like a case of beer, or an item of furniture. A case of beer can be carried with a standard bike pannier rack, and even more easily with a Yuba Mundo. The Yuba Mundo can also tackle most of the furniture transportable by car. It is also worth remembering the fairly narrow range of large objects which a car can carry before it become necessary to have the item delivered professionally, combined with the generally infrequent need to transport these items. Even with a car, you’d probably get a wardrobe or a bed delivered instead. At least without the car you’ll have plenty of extra cash to pay for the delivery. Once again, it is perception which needs to be challenged.
6) Family: This is an area where I lack personal experience, but which I have read a great deal about on blogs such as the Lazy Rider Bicycle Blog, A Most Civilized Conveyance and the community surrounding Bike Portland. Basically the consensus seems to be that kids are fine as cargo when young, and solutions exist to transport kids on a normal bike. When they get older there are things like the Bakfiets or on the back of a Yuba Mundo, and eventually they can match your own ability to get around on two-wheels.
Of course often overlooked in these kinds of discussions are the countless families here in the UK who rely solely on public transport. Discounted child rates are common, in addition to schemes such as the Family Railcard.
Having addressed the main concerns people usually raise when talking about car dependency, I would like to look at some of the advantages of car freedom:
1) Richer: Without having to pour so much of your wage into the car, you’ll be a fair amount better off. If you cycle or walk a lot rather than heavily depending on public transport that money is going to be useful because,
2) Fitter: You’re likely to live longer, as much as ten years longer. A lot of car-dependents drive their cars to the gym to try and keep fit. If you walk or cycle to get around that is money that you won’t have to spend at the gym. The health benefits are not just physical, exercise such as walking and cycling is good for your well-being
3) Happier: Exercise produces biochemical changes in your brain giving you a pleasant feeling which lasts for a while after exercise. This has benefits if you are cycling or walking to work because it makes you,
4) More Productive: Starting the day with a bit of exercise such as walking or cycling makes you more mentally alert and productive. You might find that after walking or cycling in that work sucks a little bit less.
5) Comfortable: When I started walking and cycling more I noticed that I started to feel a lot more comfortable in general, clothes fit me better and I found myself feeling too hot or too cold a lot less frequently. I also started to be less-frequently ill with coughs and colds.
6) Not Drinking Too Much: OK, the theme starts to fall apart here a bit. Now that I cycle and walk most places, I get enough exercise so that I don’t have to worry so much about drinking and eating too much.
7) Not part of the problem: By choosing a car-free lifestyle you are setting an example to others that there is another way by not contributing to the wide ranging environmental, political and social problems associated with mass-car ownership, both locally and globally.