My Carfree Journey
A few weeks ago I finally achieved something I had aspired towards, yearned for every time I watched the adverts at the cinema, or heard Jeremy Clarkson on the TV – I’ve finally given up the car.
My story is unusual in some ways, but not as unusual as you might imagine. Every year nearly half a million British households take the same step, for a whole range of reasons. I’ve interviewed some of these people, of which more later, but first, this is my story.
It all started at the age of 17, when I was driving a hand-painted 20 year old Reliant three-wheeler on a motorbike licence. In a typical moment of teenage distraction I drove through a red light, into the side of a white van. When I recovered from the shock I looked up to see, painted on the damaged side: Police – Accident Prevention Unit. I was banned for twelve months and took up cycling. From that time on I have never stopped cycling, though for many years it was more for sport or recreation than transport. Cycle touring gave me two things: a love of the countryside and an aversion to traffic, both of which would have a lasting influence on the rest of my life.
Like many people brought up in cities and suburbs I wanted to move out as soon as I could: first to a village in the London greenbelt, then to a more remote part of South Devon. But, not long after my ‘escape’, I discovered the city was pursuing me.
In 1998, faced with rising house prices and pressure from the Government, Devon County Council approved a structure plan which, had it ever been implemented, would have transformed much of rural South Devon into something resembling Milton Keynes. In our district, South Hams, 11,500 homes would be spread between the small towns and villages and a separate new town in open countryside. As no one else seemed to be doing very much about it, I decided to set up a campaign group, SHARD (South Hams Against Rural Destruction). We organised public meetings, carried a cardboard coffin into the council chamber followed by TV cameras and dug up the lawn of County Hall. We also played the official game: lobbying councillors and MPs, and giving evidence at examinations in public.
I read up about planning and housing and gradually realised that I had been part of the problem. Three of the greatest threats: urbanisation, roadbuilding and climate change, are all linked. Pressure for road building is both a cause and effect of more cars and more driving. Pressure for urbanisation comes from smaller households, people living longer, and particularly in attractive rural areas, inward migration – of people like me.
Most of the people moving to the rural Westcountry, and other attractive parts of the country, come from more urban areas, wanting a more rural lifestyle, wanting land-hungry houses or bungalows with gardens. Worst of all were the people around places like Totnes who thought the planners should let them build homes for themselves in open countryside. The population density of England is nearly 1,000 people per square mile: 50 metres between each of us, if we all spread out evenly – with our cars, of course.
The migrants include many pensioners but most of them are younger. As public transport is always limited in rural areas, employment and services often distant, more people bring more cars and drive more than they do in the cities. At the weekends I noticed with irritation the growing volumes of traffic on the lanes where I cycled, whilst during the week I was driving 22 miles across the Dartmoor National Park to get to work.
As I read up on housing policy I found two thirds of our households (in South Hams and nationwide) are made up of one or two people. Families, with two adults and one or more children, now make up just one household in five. At the same time, 87% of our dwellings are houses or bungalows. Flats, still a tiny minority, use less energy and take up less land, particularly if they are built on brownfield sites in cities. An inconvenient truth gradually dawned on me: if you really love the countryside, three of the best things you can do for it are: move to a town or city, give up the car, and if there are just one or two of you, move to a flat.
But all of this was a little in advance of my story. Like most grassroots campaigns, it never felt as though SHARD was making much difference at the local level. But all across the country, dozens of groups like ours were starting a quiet revolution. Planning Policy Guidance No. 3 (Housing) published in 2000 was the turning point. If you have never heard of the Policy, you may remember John Prescott and his target to build more homes on brownfield sites. Unlike his ‘transport revolution’ this one did make a difference.
Most of us were sceptical at first. But then the first cranes began to appear on derelict land in cities like Plymouth, where the planners had always claimed there was no more room. The density of new building began to rise and as cities like Plymouth began to recover from decades of falling population, the plans to concrete over our district were gradually scaled back.
The plans for a separate new town were replaced with a more compact extension to the Plymouth suburbs – to be known as Sherford. As we were drawn into the process of designing Sherford I began to realise how much I didn’t know, and to wonder whether the confident-sounding consultants paid by millionaire developers really knew as much as they made out.
Once the question of where to build was settled, the next problem, it seemed to me, was transport. If you build at higher densities, but allow everyone to own, park and drive cars as usual, you will end up with congestion, pollution and streets turned into giant car parks. The claims of developers that a good bus service to the city centre would solve the problem seemed laughable to me – but what did I know?
I decided I had to learn properly. Four years ago, I gave up my job and started a PhD, which gave me an opportunity to visit places where they have actually managed to solve these problems. Every summer for three years, I cycled across different parts of Europe, visiting carfree neighbourhoods and cities, like Freiburg, Groningen and some smaller towns like Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium – places designed, or re-designed for people rather than cars. Planning is often thought of as a dry technical or bureaucratic activity, but walking around the streets of Vauban, the carfree neighbourhood of Freiburg, between unicycling children and families with shopping in cycle trailers I sensed a far more exciting possibility: to plan for a better world than the one we live in at the moment.
Inspired by this vision a few of us set up Carfree UK, to promote carfree neighbourhoods in Britain. Sometimes people were surprised to discover I was Coordinator for this organisation when we still had a car in our household. But banning all cars is not what Carfree UK is about. We have always recognised that car ownership depends on circumstances and carfree neighbourhoods are only appropriate in places where people are able to choose that type of lifestyle. The village where we lived in Devon was not one of those places.
The potential for carfree neighbourhoods in Britain was the subject of my PhD. The good news is: a potential market does exist. I interviewed many people who I term ‘carfree choosers’ – people who live without a car by choice. I found a few of them in small towns or outer suburbs, usually near a railway station with a good service, their lives carefully arranged around the constraints this implied. But the vast majority of them live where it is easier, in cities, particularly near the centres of larger cities where public transport routes converge and more things are available within walking distance.
The carfree choosers differ in several ways from the people who can’t afford a car. Whilst the latter travel more by bus, the carfree choosers prefer to cycle more for short distances, and take the train more for longer distances – as I prefer to do.
As I interviewed these carfree choosers I thought about the changes my wife and I would need to make if we wanted to give up our car. Those reflections eventually led us here, to a flat in the centre of Bristol, overlooking the River Avon and a building site on the opposite bank, destined for a high density mixture of flats, offices, shops and restaurants. We recycled or gave away half the stuff we had accumulated in our old house, knowing the problem would never recur – because there would be no room to accumulate in future. Ironically, we had to buy a flat with underground car parking, as unlike the continental carfree designers, most British developers think one cycle space per flat is more than enough. I had to get permission from the management company to drill five hooks in the concrete walls of our parking space.
I have just started a new job at the University of the West of England, continuing my research and teaching students of transport and town planning. The campus is five miles or so from the centre: I cycle if the weather’s good, and take the train if it isn’t. There’s also a bus, though I don’t use that very much. There is a car club in the centre of Bristol, like many other cities. We may join it, for occasional use, although in four months living here, I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need for a car.
The process of moving taught me a lot. The reported death of the city centre flat has been greatly exaggerated. In Bristol, as in many other cities, they are still selling for high prices – too high, because we haven’t built enough of them yet. Looking around, there is still plenty of room for more flats and more people – but not for more cars. That will be one of the greatest challenges for the next generation of planners: how to create the conditions for more people to enjoy a better quality of life in higher density housing. We know it’s possible – I have seen how it can be done. The housing shortage is not going away. If we want to resolve it without destroying the countryside, we will need to find new ways of attracting people and removing cars from our inner cities.
Now you may be reading this, doubting whether anyone would make such life changes for purely altruistic reasons: surely we had other, more selfish reasons. And that’s where I’ve made another discovery. The psychologists call it ‘cognitive dissonance’, a fancy term for something most of us would recognise in people around us. Put simply, where people’s behaviour conflicts with their attitudes, one or the other is likely to change. The young radical who gets a promotion and becomes more conservative, the SUV driver who convinces himself that climate change is a conspiracy invented by governments: these are the results of cognitive dissonance – people’s attitudes changing to reflect their behaviour.
Cognitive dissonance affects all of us at different times in different ways. In my case, I began to resent having to drive seven miles to the cinema or 18 miles to the theatre in Plymouth. I started to find driving more stressful. I wished I could walk to cinemas and theatres. Although I never stopped loving the Devon countryside, the attractions of city centre life grew stronger. So when the time came to look for a new job, I was happy to move.
Some of the people I interviewed would like to live without a car but their partner either disagreed, or had a job which compelled them to own one. My wife and I tend to agree on most important things (we disagree on things like tidying up, but that’s another story…). We felt we were travelling on a similar journey, but the big questionmark was whether she would find a job in the right place, and whether her employers would insist on her owning a car.
My wife’s profession, psychiatric nursing, includes two kinds of job: inpatient, which usually involves shift working, or community nursing, which involves travelling around. A few farsighted NHS trusts go beyond platitudes in the annual report, and do actually promote sustainable travel. A health visitor I know covers her patch by cycling, which is quicker and more convenient than driving around London. But she is an exception. Despite the mounting evidence of health problems caused by car dependency, in many of its dealings with staff and patients, in its decisions on siting hospitals, the NHS continues to feed this disease which lies at the root of so many others.
As we didn’t know where my wife might be working, we decided to buy a flat near Bristol’s main station. I moved on my own at first, as my wife took several months to find a new job. Fortunately it was an inpatient job, reachable on all shifts by train and folding bike (contrary to the common excuse you might have heard, shift working does not normally mean travelling in the middle of the night). This was the last thing we were waiting for. On the day after her leaving party we drove the car to my brother, who had agreed to buy it, and took a one-way train to Bristol.
I phoned the Environmental Transport Association to cancel our breakdown cover.
“But won’t you be getting another vehicle?”
“What, not at all?”
“Did you know we do breakdown cover for bicycles?”
I didn’t think I’d need puncture cover, but there were times in the past when I really needed something like this: buckled wheels, broken frames, me and bike lying mangled on the ground because some pratt had let his Alsatian loose on a cycle path!
After four months living here I’m not regretting the move. Most of the things we came for, we have found. Tonight we will walk to the theatre. Tomorrow we will take a train to walk in the Avon valley, and the next day we will follow one of the cycle routes which radiate from the city centre, to meet up with our cycling club.
Often when I talk about carfree development, I am amused by people who say things like: ‘but how would people do their shopping?’ as though everyone without a car starves to death because they can’t get to the shops! Our cycle trailer, as I sometimes point out, can carry a fortnight’s groceries – or 72 bottles of wine on the cross-channel ferry. And we have bought a shopping trolley – the type you probably associate with older women, but are available in chic designs in cities like Barcelona.
Returning from the shops with the cycle trailer, along the river path with the autumn sun setting in front of me, I was filled with a sense of freedom. At last, I had made a real escape. If any of you are contemplating a similar move, I’d say: go for it – you won’t regret it.
Steve Melia is Senior Lecturer in Planning and Transport at the University of the West of England and Coordinator of Carfree UK (www.carfree.org.uk)