Goodbye Carmageddon

The perils and pleasures of ten years without a car.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th September 1999.

This month, I think I’ll have a party. I will commission a cake in the shape of a mangled vehicle. For I have something special to celebrate. Ten years ago I took one of the best decisions I have ever made. I got rid of my car.

I passed my driving test when I was eighteen and bought a decrepit Renault 8 for £50, principally because I was assured that a car of this make won the Monte Carlo rally some twenty years before. I scarcely knew what to do, but I had a licence to do it, and I soon began to terrorise the neighbourhood. An ugly gang of us – farmhands, mechanics and pump attendants – began organising illegal rallies. We would scream around the country roads in the dead of night, often spinning out of control, narrowly missing other cars. It was electrifying and terrifying. One of my friends rolled his car at eighty when I was his passenger. The machine was scrunched into a ball, but both of us walked from the wreckage unscathed. A society which allows adolescents to drive on public roads is a society which has no concern for human life.

Only when I became old enough to see the world from other people’s point of view did I begin to slow down. As the horror of what I might have done began to grip me, I started driving less like a young man and more like a granny. I stuck resolutely to the speed limit, as a result of which I was often tailgated and abused.

Car ownership became ever harder to reconcile with the rest of my life. As I earnt very little, the car swallowed a great lump of my income. I discovered that it is impossible to purchase motor fuel ethically. Those oil companies not running ships aground on fragile coasts or trading with the Burmese junta are poisoning the Gulf of Mexico, prising open the Ecuadorean rainforests, or abetting the murders of trades unionists and tribal people in Colombia and Nigeria. I did not want to take part in this trade but, owning wheels, I had no choice.

So, in September 1989, I took my last car, a Ford Escort even more battered and decrepit than the old Renault 8, to meet its unmakers. I walked away from the scrapyard weighed down with apprehension. I had, I believed, become a second-class citizen, stuck in the slow lane of life as the rest of the world roared past me.

But I soon began to notice several unexpected effects. I realised that I had been carrying a car load of anxiety around, worrying about breakdowns, break-ins, finding a parking space or failing an MoT. I started to become more patient and less aggressive: the car had colonised my soul, shutting me off from other people, forcing me to see them only as obstacles. I began to wake up, noticing the little things I had never seen before, smelling the world, meeting people every time I travelled. And every day I found myself becoming stronger and fitter. Using an over-powered invalid carriage to get around, I had slowly been turning into an invalid.

Cycling long distances was, at first, an appalling prospect, but gradually I began to venture further afield. Now, as long as I can get my bike onto a train or a bus, almost everywhere in Britain has, once more, become accessible to me. If you add up all the time it takes to earn the money to run a car, drivers achieve an average speed of just eleven miles per hour. As I ride at an average of 14, and pay next to nothing, my bicycle is faster than your car.

But I must pay for my decision not to destroy the planet in other ways. Forced to use a public transport system which is both the world’s most expensive and the developed world’s least efficient, I have come to see that the government, despite its protestations, simply doesn’t care about the 32 per cent of British households without access to a car. Refusing, so far, to legislate, it remains officially committed both to reducing car use and to increasing car ownership. It resolves this absurdity, every time, in favour of Middle England. Sometimes I can stand the indignities of public transport no longer, and try to hitch-hike instead.

Having taken the advice of Viz magazine’s Top Tips (“Hitch-hikers: improve your chances of getting a lift by not dressing up as a hunt saboteur and waving half a cardboard box at passing motorists”) I stand in a layby hoping to exploit private transport’s preposterous over-capacity. I find myself enduring a sort of psychological stoning, as drivers hurl their hostility and contempt at me: no one, they are thinking, stands by the side of the road today unless he is a scrounger, an idler or a rapist. When someone finally takes pity on me, I find myself, to my disgust, pathetically grateful. I want to explain that, far from being a favour, a lift is the least that drivers owe to non-drivers. It’s everyone’s planet, and they are freeloading on my decision not to mess it up. But I am never quite brave enough to do so.

When there are no alternatives, I will hire a car or a van: this happens about five or six times a year. I don’t enjoy it, but at least I can choose the model which suits my purpose best, and if something goes wrong, it’s someone else’s problem.

But, above all, losing my car has encouraged me to reduce my need to travel. I used to drive for hours just to go walking in the countryside, with the result that I came back more stressed than I was before. Forced to explore nearer to home, I have found scores of wonderful and secret places. I have had to stop shopping in superstores. Buying my food from local shops, a co-operative wholesaler and an organic box scheme, I’ve found myself, once again, becoming both healthier and wealthier. I have begun to feel that I belong to my town and its surroundings and that they, in a small way, now belong to me.

None of this has completely dispelled the impression that I am, officially, a second class citizen. I no longer participate in the cannibal feast, but I still have to pay for it. Vehicles, according to the British Lung Foundation, cost the country some £46 billion a year, while motoring taxes reap just one third of this amount. Cars sprawl across the pavement outside my house, and their alarms wake me in the middle of the night. As a pedestrian and a cyclist I am far more vulnerable than those who endanger me. Cars choke me while I’m waiting for the bus, and they force that bus to become as inefficient as they are. I will suffer just as much as drivers will if the global climate change they are hastening brings the Gulf Stream to a halt. But despite all this I remain a free man, while millions of others are held captive by their cars.

Losing my car would have been much harder had I not been able-bodied, or if I worked far from home or had children. Some parents in my neighbourhood go to extraordinary lengths not to be forced into cars: one family of five rides a tandem with two toddler seats and a trailer. But individuals simply cannot solve structural, institutional problems, and the car will continue to rule our lives until the government intervenes. Why is it that doing what we know to be right is always so hard, while doing what we know to be wrong is so much easier?