Going car-free

Action on climate change has been in the news recently: the New Zealand government has declared a climate emergency, and there has been much discussion of what needs to be done to reduce our carbon and other emissions. It seems a good time to reflect on my experience of being happily car-free for two years!

Why do it?

Like many other people, I am deeply concerned about climate change and its increasingly evident impact on planet Earth and its inhabitants, both human and non-human. I am committed to doing what I can to reduce my emissions and environmental impact. Some argue that what one person does has little effect, but I have other ideas! We need both high-level AND individual action. If everyone does nothing, then nothing will change. One person influences others around them by modelling a different way of living: I have been influenced by people I know, both in real life or through reading and online. And I know other people have been influenced by my actions. There are mental health considerations, too: climate anxiety is a feature of our times, and I find I am much more content living in a simpler lower impact way.

Transport is a big player in greenhouse gas emissions, and it is one of the most effective things we can act on. New Zealand has a very bad record when it comes to transport emissions. We have more motor vehicles per capita than just about every other country, including the notoriously car-dependent USA: check out the table on Wikipedia. The Ministry of Transport has just released our fleet statistics for 2019, and the report makes for a depressing read.

Over the past 20 years, we might have hoped that some effort would be made to reduce our transport emissions. However, the number of vehicles in this country has increased (per capita as well as in real numbers) and the size of vehicles has increased. From the report: “In 2010 light vehicles with engines between 2000-2999cc became, and continue to be, the most common light vehicle. Prior to 2010 light vehicles with engines between 1600-1999cc were the most common.” This is obvious to any observer. In my part of the country, every second vehicle seems to be an SUV and double-cab utes are increasingly common too. There are very few electric vehicles and 98% of the light vehicle fleet runs fully on petrol or diesel. The only glimmers of hope in the report are that vehicles entering the fleet have lower reported CO2 emissions per kilometre (New Zealand vehicles are, on average, older than in comparable countries), and that annual kilometres travelled per capita have decreased a little for the first time in many years. The distance travelled by heavy vehicles (trucks and buses with a gross mass over 3.5 tonnes) is on the rise, but still light vehicles were responsible for 92% of the total distance travelled by the New Zealand fleet in 2019.

Shame on us. Keeping this huge fossil-fuelled fleet going contributes significantly to climate change, but it has other issues also. Vehicle crashes kill and injure people, and there is increasing evidence of the serious harms caused by vehicle pollution on human health. While switching to electric cars reduces some of that pollution, a fair bit of it comes from tires, brakes and road surface wear, so they are not the perfect solution. The increasing time spent in cars has another health impact: New Zealanders have become less physically active and that is very bad for us. It is presumably no coincidence that we rank very highly internationally for car ownership, and very low for physical exercise.

Another issue is the cost of buying and running a car, and providing infrastructure for all those vehicles. There are obvious individual costs: one American source suggests the lifetime opportunity cost of owning cars is $2 million for one person! Then there are the direct costs to society of providing roads for that ever-growing fleet of vehicles, and places for them to park. Thankfully the political party whose solution to everything is “more roads” is currently in opposition, but we are still spending a lot on roads. Not enough, some will say, as congestion keeps increasing. The obvious solution is fewer cars, not more roads.

Life without a car

Like many New Zealanders of my generation I got my driver’s licence when I was 15 years old, and from my twenties onwards owned a succession of cars. A few years ago, as my concerns about climate change grew, I decided my next car should be an electric one, but then I started to wonder if I needed a car at all. I had been using it less and less, and I tried doing without it as much as possible before taking the final plunge. It remains an eccentric thing to do, but I had friends who inspired me.

In December 2018 I sold my car and I have never regretted it. I felt that a burden had lifted from me when its new owner drove it away! I could not have taken this step without access to suitable infrastructure for active and public transport. Unless you live in the middle of town and can walk everywhere, you need some other way of getting about (incidentally, that is why increasing density of housing in well-serviced urban areas is the ideal for the environment when it comes to housing development).

I live on the Otago Peninsula, 11km from central Dunedin. There’s an hourly bus service to and from town 7 days a week. Until a few years ago there were only 2 or 3 buses on Sundays, which was much more limiting. More frequent buses would be more convenient – we do have a couple of extras in rush hours! – but I can work around the hourly timetable. The buses stop overnight. The last bus home leaves town at 11.38pm on Friday and Saturday, but at 10.38pm on other weeknights and just 8.38pm on Sunday. That means the occasional taxi is called for, but I’ve only needed one a few times as I’m not a late bird. Getting to other suburbs sometimes requires transferring buses, with a wait between. The Dunedin bus hub makes that straight forward. I regularly travel to a friend’s place in Waikouaiti (40km north of Dunedin), transferring buses in town.

I like the bus, and often used it to commute even before I gave up the car. I’m lucky because I can read, despite it being a winding road (many people I know feel sick if they do that). But often I spend the journey chatting to friends. I’ve met many people in my community over the years at the bus stop or on the bus. It’s so much more relaxing than driving yourself, and you can enjoy the view much more! Since the Dunedin City Council added more subsidies to buses, it has become a really cheap way to travel – just $2 for an adult fare across the whole network (free for over 65s). That includes transfers, so I can get from home to Palmerston or Brighton or Mosgiel for just $2.

My favourite way of getting into town, though, is on my bike. When I first tried commuting by bike I had to share the winding 70kph road with motor vehicles, which could be hairy at times, but now there is a wonderful new separate shared path all the way into town. This is a huge improvement and has led to many more people cycling. It’s a beautiful ride beside the harbour, and I love looking at the water and birds. As well as the benefit of the physical exercise, I really feel the benefit on my mental health of being outside in the weather beside the water – it’s almost meditative. In winter, when the days are shorter, commuting brings the bonus of beautiful sunrises.

When I sold the car I bought myself a new bike, since my old one had some faults that were beyond repair. I thought about getting an e-bike, but decided to stick with a push bike and have no regrets so far. My rides are almost all on the flat, but if I had more hills I would definitely go for an e-bike. If a big headwind gets up before I ride home (a regular thing, unfortunately), I can put my bike on the rack on the bus – this is a brilliant service on the Dunedin buses. I’m happy to ride in the rain, thanks to a good rain jacket and pants, but I’m not fond of a headwind! My bike is vintage-style and not the fastest one out, but it has some practical features I highly recommend: a chain guard, mud guards, a kick stand and a sturdy bike rack. Running a bike is a whole lot cheaper than running a car, and I am much better off financially, even with the occasional taxi fare and lots of bus fares added in.

I’m not commuting any more, but I still bike into town for various things. I take some delight in quaxing! For those who don’t know this term, it means shopping and carrying stuff by bike or public transport. The term originates from the late Auckland councillor Dick Quax, who didn’t believe people did regular shopping without a car. It is now in use well beyond Aotearoa!  My best efforts so far involve tomato plants and large boxes of fruit, but other people take much bigger loads, especially if they have specialist cargo bikes.

Resorting to vehicles

Not owning your own car doesn’t mean you can’t use one. Although it’s a last resort, I have borrowed one, though only on a handful of occasions (and if I couldn’t borrow one, I could rent one). I can get most items I need home by bike or bus, or have them delivered. Taking two cats to the vet definitely requires a car though! Other things I have used a car for are an urgent doctor’s visit, and transporting a spinning wheel, an armchair, and compost (though I could probably have had the latter two delivered). Occasionally I get a ride with somebody going to the same event. There are some places I can’t get to without a car, but I’ve simply chosen to go to other places instead.

I’ve done some long-distance trips on public transport. They include weekends in Central Otago and a lovely trip by bus, train and ferry to Christchurch, Wellington and the Wairarapa. Obviously renting a car is another option, but I much prefer being driven by a professional than doing my own driving. My mother was very ill for quite a few months this year, and I became her chauffeur as well as her caregiver, driving her car to the hospital and other health-related appointments. Once she started getting better I also drove her to a few gatherings, until she improved enough to get the bus and eventually was able to drive herself again. These days I really dislike driving. I find it stressful and parking is such a hassle. Cycling or catching the bus is much easier!

Go for it

In conclusion, I now live very happily without owning a car. If you have the infrastructure you need to get around by active or public transport for most things in your part of the world, I highly recommend this way of life!