I’ve never learnt to drive. The reason I’ve never wanted to learn to drive a car is because I’m not happy with the experience of overseeing a metal box on wheels travelling at thirty mile an hour. I realise that lots of people do like driving, and by extension the culture that goes with cars, but it’s never been for me. I’ve always found cars boring. I have always much preferred walking, or letting other people do the driving. Getting a bus seems preferable to having to sit in a traffic jam or dodge and weave with the flow of cars on a trip on a motorway.
While I am grateful for friends who give me lifts, or who offer to be the driver for a journey, I’ve never really wanted to take control of the vehicle myself. It feels like an alien and counterintuitive experience to me, which was reinforced by my loathing of drive-in fast food restaurants, out of town shopping centres, IKEA, motorway service stations, car ferries, car parks, and car showrooms. I hate in-car radio, and except for a late-night sing-along on an empty motorway, I don’t share the romance that a car represents for many people.
So, was it the right decision for me not to learn to drive? When I made my decision, never outspoken or specifically stated back in the late 1980s, life in UK cities was different. Public transport was cheaper and more available. There were few out-of-town shopping centres. There was a wider range of shops in local neighbourhoods and town centres. People were used to walking more to get about. The obsession with personal mobility was aspirational, and few families had more than one vehicle.
Passing the driving test, and buying a first car was not seen as a right-of-passage, because cars needed more maintenance and looking after, and brought with them, in my experience, more problems than they were worth. Laying underneath a Ford Cortina MkII changing an oil filter in February was not my idea of fun!
It was also the case that there was less congestion in our cities, and that fewer people drove around aimlessly, it seems to me, largely for the sake of just driving around. I’ve never seen the need to visit the suburbs or any other place that exists as a hinterland to the main urban area because the suburbs have always been associated with boredom and displacement. The suburbs are not places you want to visit without a specific reason. For me, the life of a town is usually best experiences in the centre, and everywhere else should be accessible on a bike or bus only when needed.
Have I missed out? Well, I probably haven’t travelled around the country as much as I could have, or visited and stayed in small towns as much as I might. Pinning a pin into a map just to visit somewhere for the sake of it, doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to drive there. So I’ve probably not attended as many events and festivals as others; nor have I gone camping as much as I might have liked. Especially in those harder to reach places. But then, if I was better organised, and as a society we still valued shared and organised excursions in buses, minibuses or trains – the Magical Mystery Tours that the Beatles sang about – then perhaps more opportunities to travel around the country would have been presented themselves. But I can’t recall the last time I saw an advert for a coach trip somewhere like the seaside or the Peak District.
However, now that we face the change of the climate crisis, combined with a cost-of-living crisis, we probably need to review our position of the viability of individual car ownership, and tart to face up to the change of living in a decarbonised society. I’m anticipating conversations, then, where I have to explain how I’ve managed to keep active, go about my business, and have a social life, all without owning, or contemplating owning a car.
There are many good questions that lots of people are probably now starting to consider living without a car. There are detrimental effects. Getting work in the centre of towns is the bast option for non-car drivers, as is living relatively close to an urban centre. If workplaces are scattered and separated across a city, and are not connected by public transport grids that follow the network principle, rather than the hub and spoke principle, then travelling is relatively easy. It’s even easier of if there is a tram.
However, I do realise that while I’m not driving, everyone else is. Which means that general policy, planning and thinking is pulling in the opposite direction to my needs and capabilities. Rather than investing in our cities and urban areas, and making them nice places to live, we’ve focussed on upgrading the arterial routes, so it is easier for cars to get in and out of a city. We’ve turned our residential streets into car parks, so children no longer have a place to play outside their own front door. We’ve also fostered a culture of superiority where drivers assume that they don’t have to moderate their behaviour for other, non-vehicle, road users.
This means that our towns and cities have been given over and almost totally designed to cars, with an excessively large amount of passing transport, which clogs up the residential areas and scares people away from using our open spaces for shared enjoyment. City streets are not designed for people to live and interact.
Therefore, as our city streets get more clogged with cars, and the prospect of total-gridlock leading to major noise and chemical pollutants spreading everywhere, then we should probably start to think about how are going to move people out of their beloved metal boxes on wheels, and onto other forms of transportation. The Netherlands has been shaping and limiting town centre car use for decades, so it is possible.
It’s not easy using public transport in the UK, and my life as a non-car driver can be hellish, with inadequate and expensive trains and buses reducing the pleasure of travelling. However, I feel we might be reaching a tipping point where, in order to significantly bring down our carbon emissions, we need to more actively restrict car use. I can extol the benefits of being a pedestrian or cyclist, but to be honest, in Leicester, it’s a constant hell trying to walk or cycle anywhere. Cars are just too dominant, even after some significant investment in traffic-calming. We might need more drastic interventions from the public authorities, similar to that we are seeing in London, Oxford, Canterbury and York.
If I am honest, it is increasingly difficult to live without a car, and that is what worries me, because it should be easy and natural. I’m not expecting a sudden influx of messages asking me for the secret of living car-free, but I’m going to try and be ready, just in case someone, on the rare occasion these things might happen, wishes to renounce their deal with the devil, I mean their dependence on having and using their car!