Beep beep! No, that's not my green conscience reminding me to stick to my principles; that's a real life, gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting, money-burning car parked in my driveway. After 12 years of coping perfectly well without owning any motorised form of transport (apart from a couple of boats), I've finally succumbed and bought a car - not just any car, mind, but a largish family estate. And the worrying thing is, I actually feel quite excited about it.
How did it come to this? I used to own cars, in the dim and distant past when I had a young family and was doing a lot of DIY. Then I divorced, and my wife kept the car. My subsequent car-less status wasn't exactly an active decision to get rid of the dreaded beast; more a passive decision not to buy a replacement. And it may have had as much to do with lack of funds as any over-riding green principle, I can't exactly remember.
That said, there's no doubt in my mind that cars are a major part of The Problem. Living in the south-east corner of England - which is so over-vehicled that it feels as if we are already in gridlock - it's hard not to think the world would be a far more pleasant place if they didn't exist. By not owning a car, I could assume some degree of detachment from the UK's rampant consumer culture - not exactly the moral high ground, but certainly a small hillock of superiority.
My position was admittedly made easier by sharing a house with someone who ran a car-share scheme and, later, by joining the hugely successful City Car Club in Brighton. If I needed to, I could always hire a car for £5-6 per hour. It was easy, efficient - and kept me locked into the car culture. Who knows what might have happened had I not had that option. I might have got my bike properly kitted out, or bought a horse - or, more likely, bought another car that much sooner. The combustion engine is a hard habit to break.
Then I had children - or two more babies and a step-daughter, to be precise. At first, my partner and I carried on with the car club option, heroically putting up with the inevitable drawbacks: booking in advance, locating the nearest available vehicle, fitting car seats, getting back before we incurred a fine, unfitting car seats, returning vehicle, etc, etc. Hardly a recipe for spontaneity. When our second child was born, sleep deprivation kicked in and this to-ing and fro-ing soon lost its appeal. Travelling on buses and trains with two fractious toddlers was an exhausting ordeal. Even walking to the beach became a chore, especially as it was all uphill on the way back. We went out less and less, and instead contented ourselves with visiting the nearby park most days of the week.
And so the idea of buying a car was born. We soon found many worthy, even altruistic, reasons why owning one would be a good thing. We would nip down to the seafront of a summer's evening and have a barbecue on the beach. We could take the children on country walks more often and get them more attuned to nature. We could take them to the big swimming pool in nearby Lewes, so much nicer than our tiny local one, and teach them to swim. And we would visit my parents in France more often, without having to pay the usual exorbitant air fares and car rental fees.
We always intended to buy the smallest, most economical car possible. But with two children under three and a teenager to squeeze in, the criteria soon changed to the smallest, most economical estate car possible. Then we saw a proper family estate with three proper seats in the back, seemingly in mint condition and the same price as the rest. Faster than you could say 'greenhouse gases', we bought it.
And so the big red beast sits in our drive. It turns out it's not the worse gas-guzzler in the world, giving 36-40 miles per gallon, and it will comfortably fit a family of five plus camping gear. I still haven't worked out which is 'greener', flying to France or going by car, but I know which is cheaper in the short term and which will allow my elderly parents to see their grandchildren more often. And, who knows, maybe we will forsake that holiday to Corfu and drive to the Westcountry instead. That should save a few trees.
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