Is it possible to ditch the car?

Last year we sold our family car. There were a few reasons. It was not the most efficient model at 10 years old, costly to run and to insure. We also like cycling, have decent gear to transport our kids around in bikes (trailer and bike seats) and live and work in a town which has a pretty good cycle infrastructure and most facilities (shopping, schooling, entertainment) here.

My cycle commute

Admission of guilt – It was also because we bought a VW campervan last year and I was feeling terribly guilty about having two lumps of metal parked in our drive.

So one had to go

“What?” I hear you say, “You decided to keep the (more polluting?) van and ditch the (less polluting?) car?”

Yes, but let me bore you with some calculations first. The car emitted 120g/km and the van emits 170g/km. So we’d need to use the van a whole lot less than we did the car to justify the purchase in terms of our carbon footprint.

We had hired a van the previous year and found it a great way of holidaying without the flights. So we managed to convince ourselves that it was ok to have it as long as we set ourselves some rules first…

  • the van is only to be used for journeys that are too far to cycle, and when there isn’t a realistic public transport option
  • the van is only to be used when it’s time-critical, like an urgent doctors appointment
  • the van can be used if the weather is so terrible that cycling just won’t cut it (luckily, the weather is rarely a barrier here on the east coast)
  • the van can be used when we need to transport big or heavy things that we can’t carry in our bike trailer or in a buggy.

So for most trips we try to think bike or walk first, then bus or train, then last resort, van.

And it’s led to quite a few changes in our behaviour, which are worth sharing.

Firstly, I’ve learned to reassess my need to make short journeys, replace them with cycling and walking. For example I used to jump in the car to the supermarket. I now either shop during my lunch hour, combine it with a run (using the buggy to carry the shopping), get an online order, or shop on the way back from a weekend camping trip in the van.

Secondly, I’ve learned to plan my time better too. It’s annoying, but not having a car at your disposal needs you to create extra time, both for planning and travelling. For example, I used to just jump in the car for the 15 minute drive to the nearest train station. Now, I’ve had to get to know the best buses and their timetables to get to the station. And I now have to leave 45 mins to get there by bus.

On that point, it’s the connections that are the time-killer. We once had an appointment at the hospital in another town, and rather than the usual 30 minute door-to-door car journey (plus 10 mins to park), we had a 3-bus journey taking us about 2 hours door to door. All for a 10 minute check up.

Thirdly, we had to be prepared to spend a little more money on public transport. Fares are not cheap so I can see why people don’t use them. My 4 mile bus trip to the train station costs me £6 for a return, and 10 miles on the bus to the hospital the wrong side of a tenner. I know it wouldn’t cost that much in fuel for the car.

Finally, I seem to feel more geographically limited not having the car. Limited to this town and whatever is on the bus routes around it. Because of our self-imposed ‘rules’ around our van usage and the difficulty of getting to other places (particularly rural ones off the bus routes), we leave our home town a lot less frequently. But frankly, it’s the way we all used to travel – and probably should all be doing in a future emissions-constrained world.

So what’s the verdict?

We’ve ditched a car, but I’d say that we have exceptional circumstances that allow for it (no commute, a half decent bus network, and a cycle-friendly town). These are things that a lot of people in this country don’t have.

What the experience has taught me is exactly why people have cars cluttering up their driveways. And why it’s so hard to ditch them. As a society, something will have to change if we are going to be less dependent on them.

It needs a lot of supporting infrastructure, the right incentives and a total change in mindset about getting around. Not an easy nut to crack. And certainly not one to crack as quickly as is probably needed.

All we’ve done is gone from two vehicles to one. We’ve still got the security of having a vehicle parked in the driveway if other options don’t work. The better solution would be to have an electric van. The best solution, perhaps, to have none.

So while we’ve ditched a car, the real test is to go from one vehicle to none. At the moment, that seems a bridge a little too far…

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