My car-free year
My New Year’s Resolution way back in 2012 was to live without a car for a year. This wasn’t just my car, it was any car: friends, colleagues, taxis, Dad. The challenge was an illustration of what’s possible when you try; I wanted to demonstrate that car-free could be a legitimate option for people. ‘I’m not anti-car,’ I wrote on the first day of the challenge. ‘I’m just anti I-can’t-live-without-my-car.’
Working in the transport sector I would witness first-hand how problematic private motorised transport could be, from congested roads to poisoned air, from unhealthy inactive lifestyles to dangerous and unwelcoming towns and cities. As a daily cyclist I didn’t drive that much anyway, but I wanted to do something a little more noteworthy than what would otherwise have been my normal routine. The car ban began.
Come rain or shine I would cycle to work; with panniers bulging I would struggle home from the shops. Though riding my bicycle had always been my chosen method of getting around London, the fact that I now had to would sometimes grind my gears, so to speak.
Early on I discovered that most of the difficulty of placing restrictions on yourself was explaining it to others. I’m known as a cyclist, but to refuse a lift? Come on now. That’s just silly. People raised their eyebrows, and I felt embarrassed explaining my motivations, like I was some kind of eco-warrior eccentric. Worse, while I cycled to the pub in the rain my mates still drove; I paid for the train to wherever we were going while they split the petrol cost. I sometimes felt as if I were just doing it for the sake of it.
But about six months into the challenge, I received an email, simply entitled ‘inspiration’. David said he used to be a ‘sunshine cyclist’, but reading my blog had inspired him to get out on his bike a lot more. ‘Have now gone 9 days without using my own car. I have been in a car 3 times but at least I am car sharing so it doesn’t feel too bad. This feels great. I have driven a car for the past 24 years so this has been a massive step and buses are a bit scarce where I live.’ His email made me so proud — this was exactly why I had taken on the challenge in the first place.
Day to day I found the challenge easy, but there were a few notable exceptions. My job at the time was organising training courses and providing catering, so I would usually buy the food the day before and take it to the venue by taxi. With this no longer an option, I scouted around for another way to transport lunch ingredients for forty people and ended up borrowing a bicycle trailer from a friend. It was fantastic: capable of carrying heavy loads, the box was a versatile and sturdy way of vastly increasing my carrying capacity, although the weight meant I travelled much slower than usual and the bulk prevented filtering through the queues. Even so, it was a revelation: this is how we get around the ‘but I need to carry heavy items’ problem that motorists often cite. I was sold, and to this day I have my very own trailer.
More of a challenge was moving house. Even the most minimalist of people cannot fit all their belongings into a bicycle trailer. Thankfully the new location was only a mile or three away, and it being a house share I didn’t have much furniture to transport. Using a combination of bike and bus, over the course of six cumbersome journeys I succeeded in shuttling my belongings from one house to the next. Journey one: seven suitcases/bags on the bus. The bags were heavy and there was enough of a walk from the bus stop to make me stop and curse several times. Journey two: panniers and box on bike, pulling a wheely suitcase with one hand. The wheely suitcase broke. Journey three: panniers and trailer. This was taking hours. Journey four: bedside table in the trailer. Losing the will to live. Journey five: riding one bike while ghosting the other. Journey six: picture frames and full-length mirror on the bus. Heavy and awkward. Arrived in my new house exhausted, flustered and completely done in by the length of the task, with new housemates questioning why they’d agreed to this strange girl moving in.
On another occasion I cycled seven miles to a friend’s wedding, my dress tucked into my leggings, and I went on holidays to France and the Lake District using a combination of bike, boat and train.
I reached the end of the year having travelled nearly 10,000 miles to places including Brighton, Bristol, Brittany, Cardiff, Cambridge, Devon, Dorset, Dunwich, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gloucester, the Lake District, Liverpool, Lowestoft, all over London, Manchester, Taunton and Windsor.
Had I driven to all of those places it would have cost upwards of £3,000. As it was I spent just over £1,000, mostly on long-distance train travel and continental ferries.
- That bicycle trailers are a fantastic way of carrying heavy stuff around town (although not entirely problem free: hitches breaking, luggage rumbling loose, difficulty getting through gates etc)
- That I can get anywhere in the world my heart desires by bicycle, train or boat
- That if you have a car you use it, and if you don’t, you don’t
- It is possible to move house without hiring a van
- Placing restrictions on your life can open the door to adventure
- Sometimes motor transport is bloody useful
A brief blog about my challenge appeared on the Sustrans website: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/blog/my-year-without-car
To read more about car-free go here: http://www.worldcarfree.net
An ex-colleague of mine set up the fantastic website car free walks: http://www.carfreewalks.org
Other organisations concerned with the reduction of motor transport include Living Streets https://www.livingstreets.org.uk