06 Jan On having a car
I’m back on trains, buses and my vintage green bicycle after two weeks’ access to car. I haven’t owned a car in nearly five years and my fortnight with one,thanks to a friend who went on holidays, tested my relationship with motor vehicles: how I use them, how I feel when I drive, and whether actually having a car alters my perspective of how much I need one.
Perth isn’t the most public transport-friendly city but when I returned six months ago, inspired by living in places like the bicycle utopia that is The Netherlands, I wanted to give life sans voiture a chance. Initially I managed quite well, by living close to train stations and finding a bike I loved, as well as accepting lifts for journeys to harder-to-reach places (which admittedly in Perth is about two thirds of suburbia).
Enter stage left access to a four-wheel motorised machine that let me attend Christmas parties in suburbs where the buses stop at 7pm. I dropped two friends at the airport and carried 12 cans of cat food home in ONE TRIP! I even dashed off to use the library’s internet and air-conditioning without having to consider a packed lunch and water bag or lather up in suncream. While this spontaneity came to bite me soon after when said hatchback became locked in the library compound overnight and I had to take a train home anyway, for the most part, time and temperature were never enough to prevent me from doing STUFF.
On the other hand, I found that without the hassle of time and temperature to keep me from doing stuff, I was less likely to say no to doing stuff. The discerning that would normally inform my schedule wasn’t necessary: I could separate back-to-back appointments by ten minutes, go back for something I’d left behind and easily squeeze in a couple more errands. I didn’t have to choose what was really important.
I found, surprisingly, that I missed the empty ten minutes granted by being ready too early for my train (or by missing a train – I am writing this post as two nice public transport attendants wait for the imminent train to pass so as to pick my hat off the rail tracks where it blew onto a second ago). I even realised that I missed the forced stillness when I jump on the train in a flurried frenzy; it’s not often we have the chance just to sit.
The third lesson for me was watching how driving disconnects me from my surrounds. I get to my destination faster and I can belt out Gotye’s greatest hits at the top of my lungs as if the drivers’ in the 4WD next to me at the red light can’t see my diva moves through the glass, but I miss all the stuff between my house and the shops that is outside my little air-conditioned bubble.
It was this combination of less discerning, less space and less seeing that reminded me that life with a car can be very, very different to life without one. Duh, you will say, but I’ll bet you forget it, at least every now and again. (Can you imagine life without a mobile phone? Or life without email on your iPhone?!)
And if you could remember that your life is different with a car, what might it mean for the way you create your life?
When I cycle to teach yoga, I am awake when I arrive at my class. My lungs are open, my legs and stomach have worked, and I already feel I have achieved something. I have smelt the sea air and noticed the direction of the wind (always against!).
When I travel by bike I also know if my suburb has been designed for pedestrians or cars. A fifteen minute cycle will show me clearly just what people in my city think of bikes. I am acutely aware of the distances between train stations and shops and I see the impact that an asphalt parking lot has for the facade, and therefore viability, of an urban café.
When I travel by bike I arrive at my destination a different person than if I drove. Not better or worse, just different.
My two week transport test tube experience reminded me that from a car we see our city completely differently.
If we have cars because we need them – because what we do is too far in location or too close in time – we are quite likely to create a life and even a city that is that. We don’t need our favourite café or pub to be local and so there is no impetus to create a hub in our own neighbourhood.
So while cars change how each of us lives our life, they also change how we create our life around us. We are a different person, seeing our life and our world from a different vantage point. Something to be aware of when it comes to deciding whether to walk or drive to the shops. And something to be aware of when we consider how to create more dynamic cities, from the position of having a car.