Oops, I seem to have entirely missed my conscious living post in May. Well, May was rather hectic, so I’ll skip over that and get straight into June.
So far on this conscious living adventure, I’ve talked about food, how I spend my time, and toiletries. I’m working my way around all kinds of things, including energy and water use, waste, charity donations…
But this month I’m going to talk about transport (a nice excuse to use my cheery wellies picture).
History and neuroses
I’ve got so much emotional baggage bound up in this topic, you’d hardly believe it. When I was young and idealistic, I refused to learn to drive. We didn’t have a car growing up, so I’d spent plenty of time on buses, and wasn’t afraid of walking to get somewhere, and by the time I was 17 I was quite happy cycling around for both transport and pleasure. I loved putting a good book and a bar of chocolate in the basket of my bike and pottering off round the lanes for the afternoon.
At 18, I went to university, still not being able to drive, and joined the student green group. I hung round with lots of people who also didn’t drive, or who had stopped driving, and generally considered driving (and plenty of other things) Not Very Helpful to the future of the world.
I was never a preaching environmentalist – I’m far too shy and retiring, and on the whole I’m rarely convinced I’m ‘right’ to such a degree that I can tell others what to do. But once, uncharacteristically, I put a post on an email group about the university’s transport plan, on behalf of the environmental group, saying something like ‘the university should charge for parking, make the bus service better, and encourage people to use public transport more.’
Well! I’d never seen such an outpouring of emotion! How can you understand? It’s alright for you, you’re only a student, you don’t have any responsibilities. How am I meant to get my daughter/son/dog to school/nursery/ballet and still get to work on time? The buses are rubbish/expensive/filthy. I can’t afford to travel by public transport. Cycling is too dangerous. I *have* to use my car.
I retreated, scared, and never posted to that email group again. I decided I’d been right to not put any opinions out there in the world, if that was the response. I knew I wasn’t right about everything, but it seemed that was the impression I’d given.
Too much thinking gets you into trouble
Still, the memory of that outpouring of emotion, and people’s defiant defence of their behaviour (I hadn’t accused them of anything, remember) stayed with me, and, having an inquisitive mind, I pondered it more over the years. I did my final year dissertation about people’s transport choices, and that prompted so many more questions that I somehow found myself writing an application to do a PhD about the relationship between transport, environmental values and identity.
At the time, I was coming from a ‘how can we make people drive less?’ point of view. Again, I was told you don’t understand, I *have* to use my car. People told me transport had nothing to do with identity (really? all that money spent on car adverts for nothing?), and that environmental values were all very well, but this was real life, and I didn’t understand.
I heard I went on a bus once and it was late so many times I stopped listening. I stopped talking about my research. When people asked what I did, I mumbled. If they didn’t already know I did a PhD, I didn’t tell them – I told them about my part time job.
In the midst of all this, my grandma got ill, and my sister drove us back and forth to the hospital, and I started to think that knowing how to drive might be useful occasionally.
I started driving lessons. Everybody laughed. Now you’ll understand, they said.
Before I passed my test, I met a boy who had a car, and we bought a camper van. After his car was stolen, we were left with this as our only vehicle.
I loved it.
How much I rallied against that feeling! I felt I should feel guilty every time I got in it, but I didn’t. It became normal. And it changed how I thought about my research (although I still didn’t talk about it in the pub).
Our cheery van eventually died, and we replaced it with an ordinary, boring car (that still has room to sleep in the back occasionally). Turns out transport does have something to do with identity after all (mine, at least) – I loved driving a van, the looks of surprise I got when I hopped out in a floaty skirt, or heels, the smell of diesel. In an ordinary car with no character or sense of fun, I got to thinking about what I was doing again.
I didn’t automatically turn into a planet-destroying monster when I learned to drive.
But I also didn’t lose all sense of reason.
What I’ve discovered, and it’s obvious really when you think about it, is that you don’t have to put yourself into the camp of ‘motorist’ or ‘cyclist’ or ‘bus passenger’. They’re not mutually exclusive, despite what the newspapers would have us believe. You can drive a car, and occasionally use your bike to get somewhere, or take the bus. Sometimes it makes sense to get the train, or to walk. Sometimes it makes more sense to go in the car.
It’s easy to turn driving into a habit. You can argue that cars have lots of upfront costs, so financially it might make sense to use one when you have one (although it’s easy to use that argument and forget sometimes that walking and cycling do cost less). You can argue that some journeys just aren’t possible without a car.
Something else I discovered, also obvious when you think about it, is that people make different decisions depending on what’s important or convenient to them, and that it’s easy for that to become the only thing I could have done in the circumstances.
If you don’t have a car, whether through choice or necessity, your decisions about where to live, where to shop, where to look for a job, will include questions like is there a decent bus route? can I walk to the shops? will I be able to cycle to work? If you’ve always had a car, your decisions about work, houses, shopping, may not consider bus routes, or cycle paths, or whether there’s a local greengrocer. And because your decisions might not have included those things, there may not be a local bus route, or train station, or local shop for you to use, so you’ll have to use your car.
And so, after that lengthy confession and my own outpouring of transport-related emotion, I’ll get to the point – how I travel today and what I’d like to do about it.
I never lost my love of cycling, although the extent of my cycling has varied over the years. How much I cycle depends on where I live (is it flat or hilly?), how many other people I know who cycle (is it a social thing? almost expected?) and what journeys I have to do.
I’ve got two bikes at the minute, both folding bikes, one full size, and one a tiny little thing.
The full size one folds in half, which I imagine means it’s easier to get in a car, although it’s so unwieldy when it’s folded that I rarely do it. What is nice is that the handlebars easily fold down, meaning it’s easier to store in the house.
I confess I don’t use it much for transport. I live on the top of a hill, and it always feels like Too Much Hard Work to get back up again at the end of a journey. In the past, living out in the sticks with no car, I’d regularly cycle 40 miles to visit a friend, so my current feebleness isn’t sitting very comfortably with me at all.
My other bike is a Brompton, which I adore. There it is, proudly sitting at the front of the bike rack there.
Racing green, very stylish. Looks too mad when half folded for any opportunist thief to want to steal (or so I thought, until one tried). It cycles mostly like a bigger bike (only three gears, but they’re well spaced), and, most importantly, folds up small enough to carry onto the bus or train.
I’ve had my little foldy bike for about 11 years. It was expensive, but I’m sure has saved me a fortune over the years. It’s not much use for touring holidays, but it’s great for taking on holiday, and it’s utterly brilliant for commuting.
My job is in a different city to the one I live in, about 60 miles away. People often ask why I don’t drive, but the prospect of sitting in a traffic jam for an hour and a half twice a day never appealed.
Instead, I head into town to catch the train.
The journey from home to the station takes 40 minutes if I walk, 30 minutes by bus (allowing for time to get to and from the stop, and for the bus to be a bit late), or 15 exhilarating minutes whizzing down the hill on my trust folding bike.
The train journey is 45 minutes, during which I snooze, or read (either a cheery book, or a work-related article or two), or knit. At the other end, there’s either another 30 minute bus journey, or a 30 minute cycle along the river.
Yes, I’m lucky to have a commute like that. But it’s not just luck. When I was looking for a job I acted as if I didn’t have a car. I only applied to jobs I could reach by public transport, with a train journey of less than an hour or so. This one, with a trek at the other end of the train journey which means the whole thing can take nearly 2 hours, was at the outer limit of what I was prepared to do, but it was worth it. I made that decision like someone who didn’t have a car, and that means I’m not tied into using it for work.
My trip to the office twice a week is main regular journey. I don’t usually shop in the car – we have a veg box delivered each week, and use the local shops (of which there are plenty) to stock up on other stuff. I don’t tend to use my big bike much for transport, which is a shame. If I go into town, I usually walk and then get the bus back up the hill.
I do find myself hopping in the car for shorter journeys these days, trips that I could easily walk or cycle. I rationalise it, like those people did all those years ago (although hopefully less angrily).
The point of this conscious living journey was to make myself think more about things I’d stopped thinking about. I’d stopped thinking so much about driving, and I’ve got used to hopping in the car to visit friends, or for a day out at the weekend. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I want it to be an active choice, a conscious decision, rather than an automatic habit.
Starting now, I’m going to have to think of a good reason to take the car, rather than a good reason not to.
(I have no idea whether anyone will read all the way to the end of this post. Well done if you have! I’ve needed to write this for a long time, I think. I’m just going to hop back behind the sofa and hope nobody shouts at me.)