Last September my family vowed to abandon its car for the rest of 2018. We kept to that promise and genuinely changed habits as a result.
We’d no longer dream of driving somewhere like Westfield shopping centre, despite the appeal of its massive car park. I jump on my bike to get to places I can’t walk. My children now walk surprisingly long distances and plead to take the train on longer journeys. Indeed, planning complicated public transport journeys has become a popular and contentious family pursuit.
But as 2018 creeps along, the car persists. This is partly because we haven’t had time to sell it. Though I am sure we’d make the jump sooner if there were incentives to scrap it or relinquish our parking space.
Last week I told a taxi driver I was considering selling my car. He was incredulous. Despite the fact he’d benefit from people selling up, he urged me not to. ‘You’ll regret it,’ he said, pointing out a car not only gives freedom for movement but also separation. ‘I never get the bus anymore. I hate all that noise, all the people, all the screaming children,’ he said. It turned out he was a loving dad to three noisy children of his own. He just didn’t want to encounter anyone else’s. Continue reading “Finding happiness on public transport”
I’ve always enjoyed a trip to the tip. Clearing out the rubbish, piling it into the boot, driving 20 minutes and sorting it into ordered containers, I seem to leave with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
So I was a little disappointed this week when I remembered I couldn’t use our car to take a few broken items to the dump in Islington. But I wasn’t ready to give up on driving just yet and, given a trip to Ikea was also due, I decided to try out a car club instead.
It’s disappointing when plans to reallocate road space are reduced to a battle between two indignant and implacable sides: the cyclist (usually characterised as young, middle-class and male) on one side and the driving everyman on the other.
It’s disappointing because these schemes are about so much more than annoying drivers or pleasing cyclists. These clashes divert attention from the real benefits of a project promoting more active lifestyles; making public spaces more equitable and enjoyable; and making sensible plans for population growth.
I knew it was going to be difficult. Taking a train to Gloucestershire and then relying on taxis and lifts to get five people to a wedding in the countryside would never be as easy as jumping in a car. But while we did enjoy parts of the experience, the majority of it was painful, forcing me to accept just how ill-prepared this country is for reducing car ownership.
I’ll admit to a love-hate relationship with my car. The hate part is easier for me to rationalise: the evidence is clear that cars are destroying our environment; taking control of public space; and killing and injuring far too many people.
The love part, however, is a guilty secret. Despite the fact that we rarely use it, the car has become part of our family world – my husband and children have devised a song about it; we have become fond of its technical idiosyncrasies; we moan about its smells and crumbs but they are ours; and once the doors are shut, this is our universe, with our stuff, our music and our conversations.
I’ve deliberated over getting a bike for a while now, but haven’t because I couldn’t work out where to put it. Our hallway is already crammed with children’s bikes and scooters and I know I’d rarely cycle if my bike was kept in my garden, past an awkward gate and a collection of rubbish bins.
But the news that I’ve been allocated a space in a new cycle hangar, recently installed on my street in Hackney, has been the prompt I needed to finally get one. This is one of 211 hangars on Hackney’s streets, each providing space for six bikes protected by key and from the elements. It’s a relatively simple piece of infrastructure, well at least if you compare it to a cycle superhighway or junction improvements, but it is arguably just as important for getting new and existing riders on their bikes.
It’s great to hear that Sadiq Khan plans to almost double the investment in cycling initiatives compared to the previous mayor of London. It’s also encouraging that he is promoting a commissioner for walking as well as cycling. This surely is signal of an ambition to consider the needs of all road users.
But is ambition (and cash) enough? Boris Johnson’s vision only went so far. He faced massive political and public opposition to his plans for segregated cycle superhighways, leaving many still incomplete. London’s former cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, has also spoken of defeat, labelling TfL’s ‘quietway’ initiative a failure, with just one of the seven planned now open.
I’ve been training for the Hackney Half Marathon and have been enjoying the chance to be alone, to explore the canals, rivers, back streets and parks of the city, and to think. The more I run, the more I’ve been thinking about the limits of my freedom as a runner, or indeed walker of the city. I’ve been thinking about the subtle, yet still powerful, ways our movements and interactions are being managed and planned.
These frustrations first surfaced in the countryside, during a run in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire where I grew up and my parents still live. I was looking forward to escaping the confines of the towpaths and to being immersed, perhaps even a little lost, in woodland. So I dug out my Dad’s Ordnance Survey map and traced a route I cycled as a teenager along the old Severn and Wye railway line.
I was dismayed when Twitter followers recently suggested that I was either a neglectful mother or hopelessly nostalgic in thinking children might still play on the pavements of streets with low traffic levels. These comments were, for me, further evidence that society is too comfortable with the car controlling the street: so comfortable that it has become impossible to imagine anything else.