Is now our time to say goodbye to car ownership?

Back in February I wrote a blog post just after we’d bought our electric longtail cargo bike, known to us as Mike. That purchase was a key point in our journey towards the possibility of not owning a car. In that blog post I asked the question whether we could go car free, although it’s probably more accurate to talk about car ownership rather than living completely car free, because it could well be that occasionally hiring a car would feature in our transport plan.

Well the world has changed a bit since February hasn’t it?! Not long after I wrote that blog post the twins got chicken pox one after the other, so we didn’t go anywhere with them for a few weeks, and then of course this ran into the UK national lockdown that started in March. As a family we were so glad that we were still allowed some daily exercise outdoors, and we got into a pattern of daily lunchtime walks on weekdays and daily bike rides at weekends and in the holidays when Tom was off work. In life before Covid, cycling had been mostly about transport and utility for us, but in lockdown it was primarily about leisure and exercise. 

We are so grateful that we got the cargo bike just before the world turned upside down, because it really did allow us to do so much more than we would have managed with the old trailer set up. We absolutely loved the quiet roads in lockdown too. The boys gained so much confidence riding on roads, as Tom had the time and space to give them some lessons on how to do it properly. They built up their stamina over the months, and we built up our knowledge of family-friendly local routes to parks and other useful places that would open again after lockdown. Instead of just going the most direct route, which is what I’d mostly do when walking, or the most main-road route, which is what I’d do when driving, I learned to think about how we could get from A to B using as many quiet residential roads and cycle / shared space paths as possible. We also started to think about adapting our bike set-up over the next couple of years – once the boys are in the next size up bikes, those will be the same size as is suitable for me, so we could potentially own 2 bikes that size between the 3 of us plus a tandem/triplet for whole family trips, particularly helpful on routes that aren’t so suitable for them riding solo. I really like the look of the Circe Helios triplet which goes small enough for the twins too. They learned to ride their pedal bikes over the summer, and they are now gaining confidence with plenty of empty car park riding practice, so a tandem would help them too in time. Obviously I’d rather Covid hadn’t have happened, but the situation did give us opportunities too, particularly with family cycling.

By September and the reopening of schools, we got to a point that we could say we were completely able to live car free in the city, although rare trips out of town would be hard, especially with public transport being limited by Covid restrictions. Tom was picking up a fortnightly click and collect Asda order in the car, which he could have done on the cargo bike (plus trailer), but we felt it was necessary to keep the car (battery, brakes etc.) ticking over rather than sitting on the drive unused for weeks on end. We used it for some trips out of town in October half term to rural locations like National Trust land for walks. Then after half term Tom switched to supermarket deliveries because the lack of social distancing and general disregard for rules was so rife at Asda that he didn’t want to go near it anymore, even just to collect shopping. We always used to shop little and often at Aldi by (standard) bike before Covid, but we changed to going as infrequently as possible during the first lockdown, so switched to Asda as Aldi don’t do click and collect, as well as getting all our fresh fruit and veg delivered weekly by the Pedalling Pantry on cargo bike. Once Covid is under control we can go back to more frequent trips to Aldi.

Consequently our car sat unused for all of November and into December. I planned a morning out with the twins to meet my parents for a walk at a local National Trust place half way between us in the second week of December. It was in the back of my mind whether I’d have problems starting it, but it was fine…. until a couple of miles from the destination! It suddenly went into limp mode, in which it only allows you to drive about 30mph maximum in order to find somewhere to stop safely. I called the RAC and the mechanic located the problem in the turbo – our car is an “eco” model which has a small engine relative to its size (small 7-seater), so relies on an additional turbo to boost it. I was able to drive it (slowly) home, then we waited a week for a slot at the local garage. They quoted a large sum of money to replace the turbo, as the RAC guy had also said would be the case.

Nice coffee from the bakery near to where I managed to park the broken down car!

So we now have the dilemma as to whether to get it fixed or not. It’s 9 years old, but has done nearly 130,000 miles, because it was a taxi before we bought it and put about 10,000 miles on it in 4 years. It seems like a lot of money to fix it relative to what it’s probably worth now and what we paid for it. Tom has been doing some research to get a rough idea of what we might be able to sell it for. He even took it to We Buy Any Car which has an office down the road, and, as we thought, it wasn’t a lot because it’s a quick and easy sale, though we could get more if we put more time and effort in ourselves to sell it, of course being totally up front about the engine fault. We suspected that at some point we would face this exact situation of a hefty repair bill, and at that point we would ditch car ownership, although we were hoping it might last a couple more years. In some ways it’s good timing though, because we never even planned to go very far from home this year in the Christmas holidays, so we don’t feel under pressure to make a quick decision.

 Our current plan is to have a trial year of not owning a car. This break down has given us a good opportunity to give it a go and actually live through the pros and cons of life without a car of our own. Financially we think it’s probably fairly even, by the time we’ve paid for hire cars, train tickets etc. to do our out of town journeys to stay with family (once it’s possible again) and days out in the holidays. But it will be interesting to see if our hypothetical calculations for not owning a car, which we have considered for several years, are accurate, and how they actually compare with the cost of repair and the money we’ve spent owning a (relatively cheap) car in previous years – it’s not just about the totals but also the expected versus unpredictable costs of each scenario and how easy/hard they are to cope with in terms of cash flow. We can also see what the non-financial factors like convenience, practicalities etc. are like in reality. We will try selling the car over the next couple of months, and if we don’t get any (decent) offers for it then we can always SORN it and keep it on the drive in case we do decide it’s worth fixing at any point in our trial. 

This doesn’t feel very daunting at the moment because we can’t actually go very far anyway, and it looks like this will be the case for a good few months still. If we are allowed to go away and stay with family at Easter then this would probably be the first point that we’d need to do something about long-distance transport. I still have reservations about days out in the holidays with the children on my own, but this probably won’t be an issue until the summer. I’d need to build up confidence with public transport routes out of town, or investigate whether our 4 car seats would fit in any of the local car club cars with me driving – I don’t think they currently do, but things may change. In another couple of years both these options seem less daunting because the twins will be older so will have more walking stamina and awareness of danger, plus the boys won’t need car seats at all and the twins will have outgrown their bulky extended rear facing seats. 

So here we are, at the end of a crazy year, but one that’s taught us some things and made us think outside of the “normal life” box. We don’t have a working car, and at the moment we don’t want or need one. We can’t afford a brand new one, either outright sale or leased, and our relatively small budget doesn’t stretch far in terms of second hand reliability (fewer miles on it means more expensive). We’re not saying we will never own a car again, it could well be that in future we decide it is actually worth owning one (probably not our current one), but for now we are happy to be embarking on this next part of our journey.

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