Car free in a crisis

‘Is there really nowhere that you want to go, that you can’t get to now?’ I was asked by an incredulous young woman at a conference earlier in the year, the week before lockdown ended conferences as we knew them. We were talking about rural transport issues; having outed myself as purposefully car-free I then had to explain to the horrified teenager that the lifestyle of a middle aged working mother meant that Friday nights were a rare and valued opportunity to see my own sofa, not a time to head out to the clubs, restaurants and bars in the nearest city. I don’t need a car now but, thinking back to my own teenage life in suburban Surrey, I totally understood why she did.


I passed my driving test at 18 and, thanks to the generosity (continuing, as they had paid for the lessons) of my parents, my world widened from behind the wheel of Gabriel, a Nissan Cherry of a similar vintage to me. Gabriel and £10 of petrol every week or so freed me from fear of walking alone on dark nights, from obligations to people I didn’t know well enough to feel safe with and gave me the freedom to choose when and where I went. I loved that car and the independence it gave me and, by association, my younger sister who more than once had to be picked up somewhere ridiculous in the middle of the night. Examination of the parental photo albums has sadly not produced a picture of Gabriel, but this is Bazhov, who followed after Gabriel finally lost his long battle with rust:

I’ve not owned my own car for about 20 years, but between generous partners and affordable rental I’ve had access to a car when I’ve needed one. With a few adventurous exceptions, my car use has been principally for adulting – moving house, obtaining chickens and ferrets*, collecting furniture and stretching the working day by travelling before the first train starts and after the last train has gone. It’s only since the passing of Car Forup three years ago that I’ve made a conscious decision that I won’t be driving again unless there is an actual emergency. I’ve also recognised the privilege of this position, living close to a train station, choosing work that doesn’t require a commute and the income to live somewhere that I don’t want to escape from every weekend.

*Chicks, when my (carfree) friend Jane was going through a chicken rearing phase (ferrets obtained separately)

Being car-free has restricted my choices but has bought its own freedoms. I can’t drive into the big city to catch that 6am train from Edinburgh for a meeting in Birmingham, collect anyone from a late night flight or act as a taxi service for small children. I don’t have to parallel park ever again. We’ve made irregular use of the local car club since Car Forup went to the great parking lot in the sky and little has changed since I reviewed our first year of living carlessly. We use the car club less than we expected despite it being easy, cheap and just around the corner. Not having a private car sat outside our house means that driving is always a considered choice because we have to book ahead, even if just an hour before we want it. Over the last six months our overwhelming choice has been not to travel unless we can do it by bicycle.

The different stages of Coronavirus have shone a light on travel and transport choices as we determined what essential journeys were, and how we should undertake them. Whilst the middle classes have been overwhelmingly freed from their daily commutes, the choice to work from home is not available for everyone, with 22% of workers in disadvantaged households working from home full time compared to 53% in more affluent households. Without access to affordable, safe and convenient alternatives the most disadvantaged could be forced into car ownership that they cannot afford.

With car use returning to pre-pandemic levels, we are back to the pre-pandemic conversation about equitable use of our street space, but through a sharper lens that has seen a glimpse of a low-traffic future. Infrastructure can provide safe separation from motorised vehicles, but removing the vehicles from the streets will put people at the heart of our places. We are now looking at 20 minute neighbourhoods and all the positive possibilities they promise, but proximity to services is just one part of the puzzle. We also need to address the current and future levels of private car ownership and how we build low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Car ownership in the UK has gone up over the last 30 years, almost doubling between my teenage years and now, and although the cost of car ownership and driving has decreased in real terms, it is still an expense. We know car ownership tends to increase with affluence, but those in rural areas of all income levels own cars because of the lack of alternatives. Meanwhile, the cost of public transport has increased and bus patronage is falling.

Travel choices are complex but with private cars sitting outside the homes of 72% of Scots, I’m unconvinced we will see a step change in mode share until that number has declined significantly. Unfortunately it’s not enough to enable the behaviour you want, you need to discourage the behaviour you don’t. Even in high cycling countries, with infrastructure that Scotland can only dream of, car ownership and use continues to increase as a function of affluence and lack of other measures to prevent it rising.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression

attributed to various people on the internet

Those frothing that we already have a war on cars are suddenly finding themselves the protectors of the disabled and elderly, something that disabled campaigners have raised a sceptical eye at.

Whilst we must protect the mobility and freedom of disabled people, decisions should be led by their needs and experiences not appropriated by those with another agenda related to their own driving intentions.

Our addiction to cars is a public health crisis – contributing to ill health through inactivity and air pollution, as well as death and injury from collisions and worldwide impacts due to climate change – and we should think of it in those terms. All of the evidence tells us we need to reduce the number of private cars on the road, remove the most harmful quickly and prevent people buying the most polluting and destructive. SUV ownership alone is an escalating climate crisis – together they emit more carbon than the UK and the Netherlands combined – and sales have increased to become 40% of all cars purchased in 2019.

The recent UK Climate Assembly Report contained some interesting insights from ‘normal people’ (as opposed to cycle campaigners) on the carrots and sticks of a low carbon future, wrestling with the ultimate chicken and egg of sustainable transport policy: how do we reduce car use and increase active and sustainable transport, whilst not exacerbating inequalities or unduly restricting ‘personal choice’? It seems people won’t give up their cars until the alternatives are more convenient, and alternatives won’t be more convenient (safe or attractive) until there are less cars on the roads where we live, work and play.

Encouraging people to change transport modes by providing and incentivising alternatives found most favour with the UK Climate Assembly members – measures such as investment in public and sustainable transport infrastructure and provision, increasing demand response transport, cheaper public transport, car scrappage schemes and mobility as a service (MaaS) schemes. Whilst some of these options are already available, they all need significant investment to scale them as mainstream options for everyone.

The carrots offer choice and personal agency, but car ownership and use in high cycling countries probably indicates that it’s not enough to help us reach a low-carbon future that will protect the planet for generations to come. With the caveat that low-cost mobility (motorised or otherwise) for disabled people should be maintained wherever necessary, and those in economic disadvantage and rural areas need specific solutions, if we want to reduce car dominance of our towns and cities we might want to look at some of these options that come with a stick attached:

Shift what we think of as normal by banning car advertising: the motor industry spends at least US$35.5bn on advertising a year, and although some of the Climate Assembly didn’t think this was influential on consumer choices, I think there’s a reason why an industry spends more on advertising than the GDP of 91 of the worlds poorest countries. Advertising shapes our world view, even unconsciously, and therefore our attitudes and choices. Let’s stop glamorising and normalising car ownership and driving, or at least point out the harm it does as we did for cigarettes.

And let’s see more of this:

Dutch e-bike advert, banned in France

Make driving pay the full costs: Driving a motorised vehicle is a cost to society and we should make individuals pay to exercise that choice, just as we should for the privilege for storing private property on public land. Implementing higher parking fees, increasing fuel tax, introducing congestion charges and a workplace parking levy and increasing tax paid on the most polluting cars will put a value on our space and make drivers pay a rate that incorporates negative external costs. When all the financial costs are borne by the individual, and not wider society, we might see that it’s just not worth maintaining or storing metal boxes in places where we could have trees, playgrounds, plants, parks and seating instead.

On street trampoline in Amsterdam

Design cars out of our homes and communities: I’m not a planner or road engineer, so forgive my complete ignorance but I had no idea that providing space for three cars outside a home wasn’t considered to have an impact on car ownership levels. This figure (p167 of the The National Roads Development Guide) shows the privileged position we give to cars in new housing developments, with parking minimums instead of maximums, literally driving us towards climate change, congestion and ill health. Instead of this we should be moving towards developments that provide space for people, removing space dedicated to private cars and enabling easy access to walking, wheeling and cycling.

Continuing to design our towns and cities around motor vehicle movements and investing in infrastructure for cars excludes the most vulnerable from our communities, compromises investment in carbon neutral transport and reduces the urban environment to transport corridors. With around 2600 working days left until catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable, we don’t have long enough to rely on carrots.

3 thoughts on “Car free in a crisis

  1. this is a fantastic blogpost for folk like me bringing together in one place (with sources and references)all the reasons why over reliance on cars are making our societies so much worse, but also listing systematically all the main strategic actions which can really make a difference.

  2. A couple more things to throw into the ring:
    1) Car owners underestimate total vehicle costs and this is stalling the uptake of green travel https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01118-w
    2) According to European research, British motorists pay around ~50% of the external costs of motoring through taxation, compared to the likes of Denmark where the motorists bear ~90% of the external costs through taxation https://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/sustainable/internalisation-transport-external-costs_en

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