Do you really need a car?

8 Mar|Tom Hodgkinson

Rational ethics and economics are against them – so why are we still a world of car lovers? asks Tom Hodgkinson

You’ve got to love George Monbiot. In yesterday’s Guardian, he confesses that he goes around Oxford tapping on stationary delivery van drivers’ windows and telling them to turn off their engines, so as to prevent global warming. It must be truly annoying to the drivers, to have this donnish corduroy wearing puritan ticking them off: “Excuse me, would you mind turning off your engine? You do realise you are destroying the planet?” George tells us that the driver in question did turn off his engine when requested to, but that he did it “grumpily”. I’m not bloody surprised! George was lucky not to get a smack in the face.

Still, while it is easy to laugh at Monbiot’s priggishness, his anti-car diatribe has a real point – respect is due. He says that SUVs in particular are extremely dangerous, and kill more people than smaller cars. He says that cars are profoundly anti-social and I have to agree. Obviously for some jobs and some lives cars are absolutely essential. But do city dwellers really need one? Every day I cycle through west London and see fleets of gigantic Porsches and Range Rovers clogging up the streets and think how much better off we would be if they all vanished.

And it is not only the planet that cars are bad for. It’s your wallet. Around 80% of car owners in the UK own their cars on HP. That means debt. My accountant says, “When I see someone driving around in a Range Rover, I just think, ‘there’s another person with £50,000 of debt.’” Anyone with a reasonable credit score can walk into a car dealer and walk out with a £20,000 brand new car having put down a two grand deposit and signed up for three years of monthly payments. That really is the height of stupidity. How absurd to borrow thousands of pounds for a hunk of metal that not only kills people but may be damaging the planet with pollution.

In 2014 the number of road deaths in the UK was 1,713 which – though a fantastic improvement from 2000 when the figure was 3,409 – is still a lot of people.

The solution, as George says, it is to drastically reduce the number of cars on the roads in our cities, and that could be done by introducing more electric trams and buses and many more cycle lanes. I don’t personally believe that the answer lies in pedestrianisation: that can kill cities. Just look at the disaster of Leicester Square in London. Portobello Road has not been pedestrianised and is all the better for it. Besides, the stall holders need to be able to drive their vans along it to load and unload.

The problem, though, is that for many people, their car is intimately wound up with their status. Just as in days gone by, go-getters aspired to a coach and six, so today the first thing you do when you get any money is upgrade the motor. A century of clever advertising has connected the car with notions of both freedom and worldly success – and I predict it would take decades to reverse that process. When you get in a car you feel in control. It’s an illusion, of course, but you feel it nonetheless.

I am guilty of car ownership. We have a 12 year old Vauxhall which cost £1,000 three years ago (and is still worth £1,000). I think it’s uncool to have a flashy car and it’s better to do as the IKEA founders are supposed to do, and go around in old Volvos. We use our car quite a lot for carting round boxes of books and children and the dog, but even so, I wonder whether we’d be better off without it.

SELECTED COMMENTS 

These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views. Write to [email protected].

I’ve been carless several times in my life – most recently for the past 10 years, since I moved to the UK. I’m from Los Angeles originally – arguably the biggest car mecca in the world. I definitely have lived on both sides of this divide. Not owning a car, for me, is personal freedom. Public transport lets me sit and look aimlessly out the window if I want to (or observe my fellow passengers) – read books, eat things, walk about, write emails, write short stories – the list is endless. I don’t need a gym membership because I walk three miles a day, at least five days a week, getting to and from the train. The money I save NOT owning a car and NOT working out in a gym means I have thousands of pounds free every year to do other way more interesting things. At the moment I’m learning to sail – wind power! Whenever I need a car, I rent one. This happens about twice a year – with the upside that each time I drive, I’m driving a brand-new car. I am always grateful to hand the thing back in again, and not be fussed about finding parking. And on the topic of parking – the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering found that there are about 3.4 parking spaces in America for each car. Is this a good use of our cityscapes??
– Gail Anderson

In 2006 my husband and I decided to sell the car and try to do without one, as an experiment. It was several years old and would soon need an upgrade. The car was also starting to cost us too much money in repairs, not to mention gas, insurance, and parking. We live in Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada. It’s not a huge city, but our transit is tolerable. We also have eight or ten car-sharing programs. We signed up for one, thinking that even if we only used a car-share three or four times a month we would save money and also do our bit for the environment—a win-win. We seriously underestimated the savings. In the past 13 years we’ve used our car-share an average of three or four times a year—not three or four times a month. Not once have we regretted our decision. We also feel great about taking a car off the road when every year so many more are added. If you live in a city with decent transit, giving up the car is easier than you can possibly imagine.
– Laurel Hislop

Do you know what the energy conversion efficiency of a combustion engine is? About 20%! The rest of the energy in the fuel is converted to heat (don’t touch the motor!) and blown out in the atmosphere! A motorcar driven by fossil energy is maybe one of the least efficient machines man has ever invented.
– Michael Roselieb

We gave up our car over a year ago and what a bloody relief it has been. Goodbye to the mind-numbing awfulness of hunting online for car insurance, plus all that aggro on the road of people honking at each other to get out of the way. We hired an electric car the other week to go to the beach for the day. The self-driving gimmicks were such fun :-).
– Orlando Jopling

I spent most of my life thinking that the epitome of ‘made it’ was a Porsche Turbo. But I changed my mind last year (I’m 36). A friend bought one in the summer and we drove to the south of France. All was well. I was rather jealous to be honest. At the end of the year said friend complained to me that he had had a bad year, thus proving to me that a Porsche Turbo doesn’t make your life any better. Ridding myself of this delusion, although shaky at first, was one of the most freeing things I have ever done. Now reading this back to myself I see how ridiculous the whole thing was. I was entombed in a delusion of my own (and millions of pounds of clever advertising’s) making. Now I’m working on other delusions too.
– Tom Coxwell-Crosse

I was born in 1977 and am literally (and I don’t use that word lightly) agog that Leicester Square was ever not fully pedestrianised. From my perspective I can’t see why it was a disaster. My brain is truly a bit broken by this news. I live in the wilds of North Lancashire. I walk the kids to school and their Dad and I both get the train to work, but we’d be lost without a car to get out for country walks and we need significant boot space to pack the tent. Like all aspects of the idle life, everything in moderation.
– Ruth Colbridge

I wholeheartedly agree. So many people simply don’t need a car, but here in Australia it seems to be a perceived right to get your licence and a car when you turn 16. When I lived in the city centre I didn’t own a car. I cycled most places, using a bike trailer to transport larger items. When I did need a car to get somewhere without public transport I used a car share company which worked great. Now I live about 20km (12mile) from the closest town & public transport, so I do need car to get around efficiently. I still combine a bike ride into my commute and avoid driving where I can. It is definitely a trap though, once you start using a car and fall into the convenience and comfort of it, it’s hard to give that up, and start using it more and more.
– Cara Archer

Town dwellers should walk or bike. For those of us living in the countryside, however, a car is the difference between life and death. Honestly it is. I’ve just written The Bangernomics Diet, which helps car owners save money by showing you how to buy and run second-hand cars. As for the danger of the car, The Automotive Nightmare by Alasdair Aird, which came out in 1972, predicted the death of the car because it was evil. That hasn’t happened.
– James Ruppert (of Bangernomics)

We just need to replace ownership with access. Most cars lie idle for the vast majority of their lives and with the technology available we can better share far fewer cars. All of them have to be EVs of course.  Best of all they could be community owned EVs that prioritise local renewable energy for charging – bringing multiple benefits to the community and taking the money away from large corporations (BP recently bought up the largest EV charging company and obviously Google and Uber etc want to own the future of mobility).
– Hugh Knowles

I too read George Monbiot’s opinion piece and want to hug him. I’ve been wanting to do the same for some time now (that is, knock on windows of cars sitting there pumping out fumes) and I feel inspired now to follow in Mr Monbiot’s footsteps. I’ve seen cars waiting outside a primary school near us with their engines running, up to half hour before the kids come out; I walk up the hill from Finchley Road to Hampstead in the morning to go to work, and nearly choke from the car fumes in the humongous SUVs and 4×4 badass vehicles which strangely disappear during half term and holidays (so maybe just taking the kids to school?). And then when an older neighbour has recently bought a horrible big new car that takes diesel as “it’s cheaper” I wanted to break down and sob in despair. We need to do two things I feel. First, educate people to understand that what they’re doing is seriously dangerous to their children and to all of us so they should stop and think about whether that journey is necessary. And second, make it not cool to own an expensive, gas guzzling car – in fact make it something to be ridiculed about. Wouldn’t that be simply wonderful!
– Alison Stapley

A friend of mine, Ken Colston, forwarded me your recent thoughts about the tragedy of the car.  I recently put down $1000 on a new pedal-powered/ electric-assist car called the PEBL. Since this video was made, the design has been greatly improved and it’s fully enclosed even at the floor level for year-round, weather-proof travel.  It can seat two adults or an adult and some small children. It goes 25 miles on a charge without pedaling, or if you upgrade the batteries, you can do 50, 75 or 100 miles per charge without pedaling. Pedaling increases the range by up to 30 percent. I think this intermediate automobile solution is the key to the human future.  If everyone continues to emulate the west in buying typical 2-ton lunks, then we’re doomed.
– Eric Brende (author of Better OFF:  Flipping the Switch on Technology–HarperCollins, 2004)

Of course I don’t need a car, but I love owning and driving a well-made, efficient and fast one. I use it for driving to concerts and opera in central London from my flat in Stockwell (at least three times a week), and for driving around France, Italy and Germany every summer. Our annual holiday to Italy and back, the long way, starts as soon as the car is packed with clothes, books and music and we set off for the Portsmouth ferry to St Malo. Bliss. The car? It’s just a BMW 328i. I wouldn’t be without it. Incidentally: I am disappointed that your magazine never has any items pertaining to music – that is to say, to “classical” or serious, grown-up music. Just lengthy features about under-educated but extremely rich purveyors of pop culture, none of whom I have ever even heard of. So maybe not the mag for me.
– Leo Pilkington

Ed replies: Our current issue includes a terrific piece on 1910s Ragtime band the Versatile Four. And I’ve just commissioned a piece on the music of Hildegard of Bingen. So stick with us for a bit longer. You may be pleasantly surprised.

We no longer advertise cigarettes because of the known health risks.  Cars aren’t going to disappear any time soon – the way things are going they’ll be around for longer than human beings will – but at least we could stop, as your piece says, associating them with status and a glamorous lifestyle.  They are boxes on wheels for getting you around, end of. We should also move towards a ban on car advertising, and in the meantime insist that all car adverts carry an environmental health warning. The change in attitude has to start somewhere.
– Richard Bradshaw

As you, and my five-year-old, so succinctly state, yes, cars are killing us and killing the planet. My child objects every time we get in the car, however, I am, like so many of us, in a situation where I cannot perform basic functions, like get to and from the grocery store, without a vehicle. Our public transportation in most of the US is nil. There is also inadequate space for bicycles to travel safely. Electric vehicles are simply unaffordable at $30,0000 starting price. I am looking into converting a diesel to a biofuel vehicle but am discouraged by the difficulties those vehicles pose. I believe the answer must come from widespread, systemic change from the top down, but that is unlikely in our current climate denier administration. So, what to do? I’ve made the personal decision, along with many scientist and social scientist colleagues, no longer to travel by air. I will not buy a new car unless it’s electric. I limit my driving time to what is necessary. I do not shop online but support local markets, artists and businesses. Is it enough? No, but I am hopeful that enough of us will make the hard decisions to save ourselves and our planet and create a groundswell of action that will give us all a fighting chance.
– Deborah Bassett

This is a subject I too am pretty concerned about. Not only have I worked in the field of CO2 related earth science for almost a decade now, but I also live in Germany, where the car problem is a lot worse I would guess. In Germany it is to this day still legal to drive with 250 km/h on a regular motorway. This of course is a very inefficient speed to travel and results in lots of accidents and greenhouse gas emissions too. At the moment there is an ongoing debate about a general speed limit, but the current German government is strongly against it. This is probably mostly due to the fact, that German politics is strongly mingled with the car producing companies like Porsche, Mercedes, VW, BMW, Audi and Opel.  But also the German public is pretty divided on this topic. Many people associate a car with freedom and self-determination, which is ironic, considering the price of a car. But going 240 km/h in your car seems to be the ultimate act of rebellion for many people, so no change in that is to be expected. Investing public funds in alternative ways of transport like public transportation or bike lanes etc. is slowly starting, but is also very critically received by many car-loving people, as they regard their taxes to be meant to go to new roads for more cars. However the amount of people here in Germany, who start to think otherwise seems to be increasing. More and more people switch to bikes and public transportation. They are forced to, since most roads are clogged during rush hours and having a car becomes more expensive. But also many people make the change out of sincere concern for our future and our planet and those people get louder. So there is hope for Germany I would say. Personally as a family of five we own a car, but use it as rarely as possible. I haven’t driven it alone for over five years now. I get to work by train and bike combined and also transport the children by bike. It is possible.
– Fabian Gäb

Bloody love my car, it’s gorgeous and comfy and convenient but I will gladly give it up when it is compulsory to do so. I would welcome legislation forcing me onto public transport and my bicycle but I will not be taking unilateral action on my Lexus.
– Philippa Perry

Couldn’t agree more with the premise of your missive, though as a skilled tradesman (piano technician) I simply couldn’t use public transportation no matter how much I want to, as I must carry around an auto trunk full of tools and parts. I am, however, astonished at the relatively low number of traffic fatalities in your country relative to its size.  Here in my state of Tennessee—population 6.7 million—we had 961 road deaths in the same year the entire UK (with 10X the number of people) had fewer than 1800. Are Brits better drivers? Do you have safer cars and/or better roadways? I’m quite curious.
– Kent Burnside

Sorry to disagree about car ownership Tom but try living in a rural area with minimal weekday only bus services to the nearest small town (4 miles, circa £4 one-way fare) and no weekend service. The one bus per weekday that gets to the next largest town (Kendal, 20 miles) leaves the village at around 09.30 a.m., allows about 1.45 hours in the town before the only bus home again.  There’s a train station in the village with services down the longest cul-de-sac in England (to Barrow-in-Furness) but to get to Kendal by train requires a trip to Carnforth first, repeated for the return journey. Whilst I can acknowledge that there are too many cars making too many short trips within and around urban areas, life in a rural village would be pretty tricky without at least one per household, especially if the family’s daily commute to work comprises many miles in different directions.
– Kate Lennox

I really think ride-sharing and car pools are the way forward. There are companies with a platform that means commuters can rent their cars out to others while they would otherwise have been languishing in an expensive station car park. You can also use things like this for groups of surfers who don’t know each other planning a weekend trip to Cornwall, or climbers to the Peak District, and so on. We have many thousands of cars parked around the country that could be used cheaply by those who can’t afford their own and who only need to use one a few times a week. What a waste!
– Alex Clelland

I used to have a car, a hardy Vauxhall. It gave up the ghost just over two years ago and although I had every intention of getting another, I never quite got around to it. I Ubered my way around when TfL wasn’t a desirable option, but then I discovered Zip Cars! For the past year, they have been my go to once or twice a week. They are quick and convenient to use and don’t come with the hassle of tax and insurance comparison sites. On top of that, they have been rolling out e-Golfs which are dreamy. I’d love to buy one, but again really can’t be bothered so…
– Miranda Clarke

I think your comments about Monbiot are rather unfair. Sitting there with an idling engine is illegal and antisocial: people are literally dying due to air pollution, and London’s air is carcinogenic. Should people be allowed to sit there burning fossil fuels and pumping out smog just because they want to keep the radio on?
– Matthew Sparkes

I wholly agree with you. There are places and situations where life would be hard without a car, but in big cities? The hassle, cost and stress is not worth it. I sold my car when I moved to Berlin, which admittedly has quite a comprehensive public transport grid and system. Shorter distances by bike or on foot, longer ones by bus and subway. And we have several car sharing companies (with electric cars, too) plus a bunch of the big rental ones, so even when you need a car for moving, hauling, or getting somewhere without the infrastructure, you have all the options. Germany is probably worse in respect to how much many of us love their cars – and the car industry, which has been a major factor in our economic wealth. But I think their days are and should be coming to an end. Might be tough on the economy, but not as tough as living on a dead planet, am I right?
– Claudia Rapp

We have been to Venice last week and we were surprised by the way people master their everyday life there without cars. Now you may say: well, they have boats instead. But that’s not entirely true. There are boats and a lot of stuff gets transported this way. Apart from people in boats, we saw boats with food, furniture, mail & packages, a funeral boat, and of course garbage boats. But, more than that, we saw people pull and drag and carry all those stuff up and down the bridges and through the small alleys aside and offside the rivers and canals. Like ants they loaded and discharged the boats and then they spread out in the narrow alleys, where you can hardly pass as an pedestrian, not to think of cars or something like that. Instead they use trolleys and other funny devices with wheels, or simply carry their things. People buy less. There are no big supermarkets, no malls or other huge consumer areas. But there are a lot of small local markets with fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables, little shops, handcraft workshops (from bakery to furniture maker) and we did not see a single IKEA shelf. Instead a lot of old and restored furniture. Secondly, people are fit and healthy, because they have to walk a lot through the alleys and up and down the stairs of the bridges or in the houses (most buildings are about 100 to 300 years old – no elevators). And they do this all the time. And doing so, they carry things. Incredible. We were exhausted the first days, but after a while you get used to it. Thirdly, and this may be the most important point, people help each other. They help entering or exiting the boats, carrying things over the bridges, passing in the small alleys, and so on. Venice is definitively the opposite of barrier-free, still we encountered a lot of people in wheel chairs. Other people, even strangers, simply help them everywhere to overcome steps and barriers. Did we miss the car? Not a single moment! It is possible to live without cars. It is all in our heads. Maybe we can learn from Venice.
– Gloria Bottaro (From Vienna)

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