A year on: life without owning a car

It’s pretty much a year since I wrote a blog post explaining how we were about to sell our car which had broken down and needed a very expensive repair. We were about to embark on a year’s trial of not owning a car, to see how we fared before making any decisions about future car ownership. 

Obviously this past year has still been dominated by the pandemic, just like 2020 had been. We were in lockdown and the children weren’t at school for the first few months of the year until the Easter holidays. Then restrictions gradually lifted and we were allowed to go further afield. The first journey out of Birmingham that we did was visiting my parents’ garden for a day – they live in Coventry, and we realised that we can get a group daysaver ticket which allows the 6 of us to use any West Midlands network trains, buses and trams for £12.20, so that’s really good value for a day trip to the grandparents. 

When outdoor gatherings of a limited number of people were allowed, Joel had an invitation to spend the afternoon at Umberslade Adventure with some friends to celebrate a birthday. This is located in the countryside between Birmingham and Solihull – actually very close to where our car had broken down for that last time. We looked up all options of public transport: the bus plus walking would take about 2 hours each way, and tickets would be complicated due to crossing service provider borders; the train would be a similar time, with a change in town, infrequent service, and a longer walk to the destination. Tom contemplated riding him there on our cargo bike, but the weather forecast was looking very wet, and we didn’t think it was fair for Joel to sit for an hour on a bike in the rain before even starting the outdoor activity afternoon (we have since bought a rain tent for the back of the bike which would have made this option more feasible). So for this trip we decided it was a good usage case to make our first journey with the local car club, CoWheels, which we’d joined. It turned out to be a great opportunity to figure out how it works, iron out some wrinkles, and learn from this. Had there not still been restrictions related to household mixing, we would have suggested to another local family that we could share lifts – we drop off both children and they pick up both, or vice versa, meaning fewer miles by car for both of us.

Another rural destination that we needed to get to early in the summer holidays was the Scout campsite at Pikes Pool just out of Bromsgrove for Andrew’s summer camp. Again we looked at public transport, and decided that it would be possible to do this journey on train plus cargo bike. We wouldn’t take the cargo bike on a train in peak times, although it doesn’t have a bigger footprint than a standard men’s bike, because there isn’t a huge amount of space for bikes in general, and it is shared with wheelchairs and buggies. But this was two Saturday trips out of town. So we loaded both Andrew and his week’s worth of kit in a ruck sack on to the cargo bike and it worked really well. Multimodal trips like this are something we’re really interested in which we hadn’t considered whilst owning a car. We also had to do this journey again in October for a weekend Scout camp, although the train line had a replacement bus service on the Sunday so we couldn’t use the train plus bike combo, so instead hired a CoWheels car again. 

Over the summer holidays we did quite a few train trips out of Birmingham, both day trips and to go and stay with family in Coventry and Devon. We got a family railcard, which paid for itself straight away and takes a really decent chunk off the cost of family rail trips. The older boys absolutely loved travelling by train and are really easy to take on public transport in general. The twins were excited by longer train journeys, although it does take more effort to entertain them and we need to take a plentiful supply of activities to keep changing it up. Still, as the adults, we found the train journeys overall less stressful than driving. We had no major issues, which can occur with any transport mode – we’ve sat in the car in traffic jams on the M5 before, and fully expect that not all train journeys in future will be as smooth as they were this year. Sadly we decided a few weeks ago that we wouldn’t risk going to spend Christmas with family in Devon given the escalating Covid situation, and I can imagine if we had’ve gone then there would’ve been staffing issues and subsequent severe delays/crowded trains, not to mention the planned engineering works between Christmas and New Year.

So far this has mainly been a round up of examples in which we’ve used public transport or car club when we’d have previously used our (own) car. Of course we were already doing a lot of walking and cycling in daily life in Birmingham when we sold the car, and hadn’t used the car that much in town in recent times anyway. This hasn’t changed. The purchase of the electric cargo bike – a Tern GSD – had been a game changer in allowing us to cut a few last remaining car journeys, particularly with the twins, and this has continued to be the case. It mostly gets used to transport the twins, but has been handy too for occasional trips with one of the older boys when taking their own bikes is impractical.

We also decided to invest in a tandem which can carry a child as the stoker – the Circe Helios. The stoker can be as young as 4 years old, although so far we have mainly used it for Joel, and the twins recently had their first practices. It is great for opening up routes where we wouldn’t feel happy about Joel riding his own bike, because he doesn’t have the mental ability to safely ride all routes due to motor traffic but is perfectly able to physically ride a bike. As the twins get older this will also be the case as they start to ride for transport. One example is our ride to church. It’s quite a long story but our church, which used to meet in Bournville, is temporarily meeting in Balsall Heath. It is about a half hour ride away with kids, and although most of it is the route we have ridden for a long time to Cannon Hill Park using the A38 segregated blue route, the last bit involves a really tricky section with a difficult roundabout. The tandem means we can ride this essential route as a family.

One issue we have come up against since expanding our fleet of bikes to enable us to cycle with the children is where to store them. I will need to write an entire separate blog post on this one day as we are currently battling with Birmingham City Council over planning permission. Our garage is converted, which we needed to do after the twins were born – obviously we didn’t expect to have 4 children in this house. We live on the Bournville Village Trust estate, and must therefore comply with their design guide for housing alterations. At the time we converted, it was specified that garage conversions must keep a garage door on the front, so we opted for a window set back a little from this, which gives us room to store the 2 biggest bikes in the front of the garage. After the first Covid lockdown, when we still had the car, we had to do something to make room for the cargo bike, which was awkwardly in the hallway at that point. So we put a couple of Sheffield stands on the side strip of the drive and got some tarpaulin style covers as a temporary measure. This work also made the walkway to the bikes and the front and garage doors more accessible for wheeling bikes past the car, which has always been an issue with the narrow driveways on our road and one of the main reasons I never had a double buggy – design from the 1970s when cars started ruling the public realm and accessibility wasn’t a concern. 

It was always our intention to do something more with the driveway, to green it and get some more permanent and secure cycle storage, but we knew it would be tricky getting BVT to agree to something whilst we still had the car on the drive, and also this was during early Covid times when many offices were still closed and processes paused or with huge backlogs. So when we sold the car we started thinking about the vision for the new front garden and how to make it so much more attractive than an empty piece of tarmac. We asked the BVT, who were uneasy about a bike store on the drive to begin with, but after a discussion during a site visit, in which we went through all possible options, and we sold them the idea of us trying to turn the tide on car dominance/dependency, they agreed to a specific one in a specific place. I think when I told them that if we can’t have a nice bike store with driveway greening then we’ll just buy a rusty old van and SORN it on the drive to store bikes in, this may have persuaded them! It’s a crazy state of planning rules if the ugly old van idea is perfectly allowed and yet you have to ask permission to put a metal/wooden box without wheels on your private land. We thought that BVT would be the harder party to convince, but we’ve recently been refused planning permission by BCC so that’s an ongoing battle which I’ll write more about in future.

The main point I’d like to make about our experience so far of not owning a car, so not having a car right outside our front door that we can hop in whenever we like, is that for every journey you’re going to make you have to think about which is the best way to do it. Ultimately it’s about choosing the best tool for the job. For many journeys in everyday life we don’t actually have a conscious thought process any more, like walking to school. But new places we go require us to have a think, and then the circumstances of the trip matter too, with factors such as time, weather, how many kids we’re taking etc. For example, a few weeks ago Andrew had a Scouts activity on a Sunday afternoon in Harborne. It’s a distance that’s easily cyclable and we have cycled before; the route is a bit busy so it would probably mean taking the tandem as opposed to him and me on our own bikes. But it had been snowing the day before and the minor roads were still really icy, so we decided to take the bus. We don’t own a removals lorry just because one day we might need to move house, and we don’t own a car just because occasionally we might need to use one when active travel and public transport options aren’t feasible for whatever reason.

Finally let’s look at the financial cost of not owning a car. This year compared to previous years we have saved a considerable amount of money by not owning our old car. I don’t think it’s directly comparable at the moment still because we haven’t been able to travel as much as we would normally, for example we’ve just got a refund for about £230 worth of train tickets because we cancelled going away for Christmas. But even with this in mind, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be any more expensive to not own a car in future years compared to our old car. We have kept a detailed spreadsheet of costs, and we’ve saved around £1,500 this year compared to the previous years of owning this particular car. Moreover, it will certainly still be a lot cheaper than owning a more reliable and more expensive car. 

Overall we have no regrets. We have really enjoyed the year’s trial and the freedom of not being car dependent. It’s hard to imagine going back to car ownership unless we were to have a big change in circumstances.

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