Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

‘I don’t own a car’

June 2010

When I say I don’t own a car, people are generally surprised. But when they learn that I drive cars regularly, sometimes their faces drop in disappointment: ‘Oh, so you still use cars then’. Sometimes the response is one of triumph, as if they’ve caught me out as a fraud: ‘Ha, see you can’t live without a car!’

My experiment began over five years ago when a divorce settlement saw the car go to my ex-husband. I decided not to buy myself a car immediately and instead give myself a taste of what it’s like to live without a car. Many of my friends had lived for years in Canberra without cars, and I had always felt a mixture of admiration and envy at their choice.

I couldn’t be better situated to give it a go. My daughter was just starting kindy at the primary school down the road, my work was a nice 30-minute bike ride away, and the shops and markets were within easy walking or riding distance. I hoped that I might last six months, saving myself a bit of money as I got used to life as a single mum on a part-time income.

The money-saving aspect proved to be extraordinary. Not only did I notice the absence of fuel, registration and servicing costs, I found myself saving money for a reason I would never have imagined: when I don’t have a car I buy fewer things. Superfluous trips to the shops simply don’t happen because of the extra level of effort required to walk or ride there. I find myself improvising more with the ingredients to hand in my kitchen rather than make extra trips to the shops. When I do go shopping everything I buy needs to fit in my backpack and be carried easily, so again limiting how much I buy. Home furnishings and appliances don’t get a look-in unless I really need them.

The other benefit I was seeking was improved fitness. I am not one to enjoy exercise for its own sake, so the requirement to ride more was a welcome change. I now get an hour of exercise a day that I would never usually have made the time to do. It provides a better example to my daughter who, to my ever-lasting gratitude, remains a staunch opponent to any suggestion that I buy a car. I’m still not as fit as I’d like, but I’m certainly fitter than I would be if I had the convenience of a car in my garage.

Being out on foot and bike means that my daughter and I are far more likely to stop and talk to neighbours and friends as we travel from place to place, and I love that I see more of my neighbours as a result. In general we now spend more time with friends in our local area which means that my daughter has a good collection of friends within easy walking distance of our home, reducing the need for ‘mum’s taxi’ to have fun with her friends.

So, where do the cars come in?

My daughter has a weekly piano lesson a few suburbs away. We could ride there, but in practice we’d have to ride straight from school and we both find ourselves feeling a little lazy on this one. I sometimes need to pick up 25 kg sacks of chook food, or 10 kg sacks of bread flour, and it’s handy to have a car to bring these bulky items home. I like to get to evening and weekend activities and meetings around Canberra. And of course there are friends and events in more distant places that I like to get to.

Luckily I have a wonderful collection of friends who are more than willing to lend me their cars, including my ex-husband. Many of these friends lived without cars for many years, and were the ones that inspired me in the first place. I keep odometer readings and reimburse them so that they are not out of pocket. I also have friends who like to car-pool. I love my Saturday mornings where, with friends from two other households, I share a ride out to the farmers market in the wee hours of the morning. Our kids stay together at home with a parent and the rest of us go out and shop together — this has the added bonus of getting to enjoy being with friends while also doing my shopping and learning from each other where the best produce is each week.

My experience with buses has been mixed. I love the bike racks on the buses. It’s not so good when it’s 10.30 pm in Civic and the bus turns up with both bike racks already full, or the bus turns up with no bike rack at all even though it’s a route that promises a bike rack (admittedly this happens less often now). The frequency of buses remains problematic, so I find that in most cases it is still faster to ride places than rely on the bus system.

My experiment has taught me that I can’t live totally without a car in Canberra until we have better mass transit systems. So I borrow cars, share rides in them and hire them regularly. Having now spent over five years not owning a car — far more than my intended six months — I have learnt that we can certainly live with far fewer cars, and that I for one am much better off by not owning one.

Canberra is a place where not-for-profit community car-hire services would enable more households to do without a car and yet still have access to cars to do those trips that really need them. The benefits to our health, household budgets, road safety, air quality and road congestion would be enormous. And I haven’t even mentioned carbon footprint!

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