Life without the car

Welcome to the slow lane, the slow life. When my car collided with an 11-ton farm vehicle on a dangerous corner and spun off the road, my children and I became carless or, as we like to say, car-free.

In the space of a few moments the lump of metal I was driving went from being worth (pounds) 8000 to about (pounds) 8 and I had just changed to third-party insurance. Bad move. Of course, we could buy another car. But I have decided to see what life is like without what Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan describes as ”the carapace . . . the protective and aggressive shell of suburban man”.
My relationship with the car has always been ambivalent. I finally passed the test after my second child was born. Buses with a 17-month-old and a tiny baby were hard work. It seemed to need about 14 hands to fold up the double buggy, hold the baby, and prevent a lively toddler from running into the road.
The only solution was to ask for help. Once I commanded a young woman at the bus stop to fold up the buggy for me. Inexperienced with the ways of baby equipment, she got her foot trapped in the mechanism and was hopping around desperately trying to free herself as the bus sailed by.
Negotiating a steep flight of stairs at Dalston Junction meant hanging around looking for a ”volunteer” to lift the foot of a double buggy laden with two well-fed babies and heavy shopping. A bus door once shut on my toddler and passengers had to scream at the driver to open it. And a friend travelling alone with her two pre-schoolers lifted first one and then the other on to a train, before the doors suddenly shut and the train moved off down the platform, fortunately stopping after 100 yards.
So the car seemed a life-changing luxury at first. With a car, the number of things it is possible to do in a day stretches out like old knicker elastic, so you might plan, for instance, to drive to the office, pick up the kids, then head out to IKEA before dropping them at a French class on the other side of town. This is the way families live now. At the health club I go to, children in the uniforms of schools from the other side of town troop in at tea-time, having spent 40 minutes in the car to get to a tennis lesson.
A friend once asked me: ”Why do you take your kids out so much? When I was young we played in the back garden and twice a year we went on an outing.” But her mother had no car. The way car culture changes your life is quite subtle. First you notice that you are putting on weight because you no longer walk miles each day. Then you stop noticing it because life becomes a blur of chucking children in the car, picking up other children, and tearing around. You never have to take into account where anything is. The children end up getting booked into things that commit you to hours on the by-pass, but that seems normal. Everyone else is doing it. The car is what makes people decide to, say, buy a home 30 miles from where they work, or choose a school that is a 45-minute drive away from home. While many people have a sense that they would like life to be simpler, it is still difficult to give up on the dream of doing everything.
There are compromises to be made in structuring a car-free life but, after the initial shock, we have found there are compensations. Instead of taking them to the zoo, I have bought them a magnifying glass and a book about identifying ”garden beasts”. We go to the swing park instead of the gym and to Portobello beach instead of North Berwick. On one beach trip, we dropped in on a friend, popped in to the deli to pick up some supper, and chatted to an old lady at the bus stop. On foot, it’s easier to stop.
Shopping is generally much easier than it was in my last car-free period. A lucky bag of seasonal organic vegetables is dropped off by the East Lothian farmworkers who grow them. Trips to small shops are supplemented by a weekly supermarket buy – online. There are, of course, glitches in the system, six bunches of bananas instead of six bananas or no nappies because they didn’t have Nature Boy and I didn’t click the substitute button, but generally it is so good I will probably never go to the supermarket again.
For toys, clothes, etc, we hate the by-pass shops as they pretend to offer more choice but really offer less, with warehouse shelves full of the same products. In-town department stores usually offer a better selection with good service.
With a garden and within easy reach of town, we are fine. The buses are better than they used to be. On some routes you can push a buggy on without folding it up – the main problem is convincing generous friends that they really don’t have to ferry you around. A car is available courtesy of the Edinburgh car club, at an annual cost of (pounds) 140 a year plus an hourly fee of (pounds) 2.50. Members can book its 17 cars over the internet. The nearest two to us are each a 15-minute cycle ride away so not terribly handy, but they may site one nearer eventually.
The main difficulty will be going away for the weekend, as the car was roomy enough for all the children and the luggage. But my car costs, not including that of the car, were at least (pounds) 1800 a year, so hiring one for a few weekends makes more sense than owning one.
For (pounds) 130, we bought a two-seater tag-along which fits on to an ordinary bike. On their second outing, the children cycled 20 miles on it and came back bounding with energy, reminding me that we drastically underestimate what they are capable of. Speeding along on the bike with my feet off the pedals, I have considered hiring them out as power generators.
The bike also has a third seat in front for my toddler so that it is possible for me to take the children out by myself. This does make the bike fairly unwieldy and trying to get used to it on my own I fell off and fractured my elbow – a temporary setback I hope. As a result of the elbow incident the children spent the first week of the holidays confined to our garden where, to my surprise, they seemed as happy as linties. And perhaps that’s what we have learned. In the slow lane, you have time to smell the flowers.

The Scottish Herald
July 17th 2003