Handing back the car keys for a new way of life

What began as a six-month experiment in doing without a second car has quietly evolved into a way of life. Claire O’Sullivan explains how she now uses other means to navigate her daily chores

A GOOD friend of mine once casually remarked at my kitchen table that herself and her husband had held their new year financial AGM the night before. I practically spat my coffee into her face.

Same friend is living oblivious to austerity, so I knew this wasn’t a household emergency general meeting (EGM) and so as she rattled on about how nice that Carolyn Donnelly stuff is in Dunnes, she was unaware that I had been catapulted onto a little cloud of panic. Was this what ‘proper’ grown-up couples did? Had household AGMs at the start of the year so that changing circumstances could be acknowledged and futures planned for? Oh my god, it made so much sense. Why weren’t we doing that? Why hadn’t somebody told me, I wailed silently in my head.

Our decision to reduce to being a one car family had nothing to do with anything as grown up as a household AGM. It wasn’t a big decision made under a fading gas lamp at a kitchen table as we pored over growing outgoings and dwindling incomes, it wasn’t a decision borne out of environmentalism, urbanism or any kind of ideology. It was just common sense.

Like most Irish people, we hadn’t really thought about having two cars — that’s just the way it was; house prices will rise inexorably and every adult shall own a car. However, when the clock on my husband’s jeep spiralled so high that it drank two tanks of diesel a week, we knew that its time was nigh. Five or six years ago, he’d have just strolled into the bank and organised another five year loan at lunchtime, but this time that wasn’t going to happen. I think the crunch moment for me was when he started talking about devouring savings for a new vehicle. Once more, I felt a gargantuan splutter coming on.

We live less than two miles from the city centre and I cycle to work and have been doing so for five years. This meant that aside from the short drive to school in the morning, my car sat unused outside our house five days a week. I didn’t really need it, so he might as well use it?

My suggestion was met with the blankest of stares.

“No, that won’t work. We’ll never manage. What about the kids? Bringing the kids to stuff?’”

I pointed out that he and my mum did most of the runs. A lot of the time I only used the car for grocery shopping and I was sure we could organise that at the weekends?

Eventually, we made a decision to try one-car living for six months. Nearly a year later, we’re still without the second car and in US parlance, ‘we’re doing ok’.

It hasn’t been easy for him. Husband is in construction and doesn’t work in an office and so spends much of his day driving from job to job and that’s how he had justified always buying new cars. His vehicle was his office, he liked to say.

The male reaction, particularly from people who worked with him, was suitably macho. “Aah for the love of god, you can’t be using her car,” they’d mutter with much shaking of head. With some people you would literally think he had cut off one of his testicles by selling his jeep, or rather that I had him cut it off — without anaesthetic.

Others openly and rudely dismissed us as foolhardy while some people started to send on links to car sale sites.

To be fair, apart from a need for greater organisation on husband’s behalf when I absolutely need a car, it has made less difference to his life than mine.

On numerous occasions over the summer, I made plans to do something, like head to the beach before realising, ‘oh no, that won’t be happening’, as all the plans were to unfold outside the narrow circumference of public transport.

And then when a friend of mine found out she was pregnant with her third child, my first reaction was, ‘I’ll help you out all I can’, before it abruptly dawned on me that no, that won’t be happening either, unless myself and the kids start cycling 40 miles return. On another occasion, I made great plans to take five kids off on a day trip before I realised we didn’t have two cars anymore and so I had to ask another kid’s mum through gritted teeth if I could borrow her car.

Because if there’s one thing that I don’t want to be — it’s the kind of bum who saves money by getting friends to pay their way.

However, there have been positives: more than I would ever have imagined. Like ambling home from school listening to the kids’ easy chatter or hearing your six year old squeal with delight as you both sail down a hill on a bike together and then the simple joy of cycling into town for an early morning hair appointment and just locking your bike outside the door rather than spending 20 angst-ridden minutes circling for a parking space.

And now worthiness alert: I’ve also become far more conscious of how suburbanites over-use their cars: how a great many people genuinely never think to walk to the corner shop or to collect their children from school on foot even though it’s a dry day and school is only 10 or 15 minutes away. We really have forgotten how to use our feet.

But I also know that I’m only really talking to a fraction of Irish society as, according to Eurostat, 73% of us lived in the countryside last year and due to the one-off nature of Irish rural housing, many people could not function without at least one car per household.

“Rural dwellers often depend on access to their own transport in order to have a decent quality of life; to take children to school, to shop, to go to work, etc. Rural public transport is not cheap, frequent or near enough to make it a preferred mode of transport,” says planning consultant, Emer Sexton.

My saving grace has been the GoCar car-sharing scheme. Operating in Cork and Dublin, it allows you to ‘rent’ a car for a few hours. At least once a fortnight, often on a wet day, I’ve booked a Hyundai i10 for a few hours so I can run must-do errands quickly and pick the kids up from school. Once you’ve made an online or phone booking you use your GoCar card to open your pre-booked car. The cars are parked at three locations in Cork and 30 in Dublin. The €50 annual fee and €5 monthly administration charge covers insurance and taxation and at the end of the month, you receive a bill, made up of the length of time you spent in the car and mileage covered. It works out as 4.99 per hour by day and 0.45 cent per kilometre travelled. Compared with taking a taxi, it’s an absolute no brainer.

I don’t know if I will be able to remain car free forever. Every year will inevitably throw up new challenges — and this September sees eldest son go to school some distance away. Maybe the time will come when I really have to call an AGM on this subject?

But what the past nine months has taught me is that where possible, at an individual, community and societal level, we need to start questioning our relationship with the combustion engine. As has been the case in the US for years, a culture has evolved in Ireland whereby learning to drive is seen as a kind of coming of age; another step on the road to being an adult.

But should we really, especially in this age of obesity and dwindling fossil fuels, be encouraging our teens to embrace the car, to become car addicts? Is it not better to encourage them to navigate public transport, to cycle, to walk, to carpool if needs be? Why are we actively encouraging them to be car dependant when in many cases its not necessary?

Cost of running your car

It now costs €12,000 to run an average car for a year, according to the Automobile Association (AA). That’s some chunk out of the average pay packet, which highlights just how onerous car ownership must be for those reliant solely on welfare.

The AA’s €12,000 euro figure includes filling a car with petrol at 133.3c per litre, insurance of €940, €390 tax, interest on a car loan of €189 per year, annual servicing , depreciation of €2,500, the cost of new parts, right down to annual driving licence and NCT cost.

It is based on a typical Band C car which would be a Skoda roomster 1.2 petrol or a Hyundai i40 diesel auto. The current value of these cars was set at €20,000 for the purposes of the research it’s presumed the car was bought new; is being repaid over five years; is doing about 16,000 kilometres or 10,000 miles a year, and is being maintained as recommended by the makers. As 80% of Irish cars run on petrol, petrol was the fuel of choice.

It’s worth noting that the €12,000 figure does include parking or garage costs of €4,000 per year and a €149 AA annual subscription. . Adding together standing costs such as tax and running costs such as petrol, servicing etc, they estimate that every kilometre we drive costs 74.59 cents.

Life on a bike is good for you after all

By Conor McManus

Handing back the car keys for a new way of life

After 12 months of procrastination I sold the car in twelve hours on Done Deal.

Yes, of course, I feel I let it go too quick —as one always does. It’s funny how, whether you’re buying or selling, you always feel you’ve gotten screwed. Should have gotten more for it, I thought. A clean VW Passat Estate, 02, would be hard to replace, I thought, as Dave from Macroom counted out the fifties on my kitchen table. My daughter even shed a tear for its loss. Whether it was for the car or the fact that she’d have to do more cycling, I’m not sure.

We had gone camping with that great car. Let down the back seat and filled it with a bulky six man tent and associated accoutrements, closed the boot and hung three bicycles out of the back and away. We had gone to Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Kilkenny, and had even taken long drives to a place where there be dragons — Leitrim — and arrived and returned safely.

I had even taken to bringing it to festivals and once again letting down that great back seat and sleeping in it. It had no end of uses. So the decision to let her go was a big one and a heart wrenching one.

I’ll be healthier for it, I told myself — I will have to walk and cycle more. No excuses — I’m a bit like that — I do need to be backed into a corner or I’ll take the easy road out.

Why let it go at all, you ask. Is it not the zeitgeist, I reply? Slowing down, getting fit, cutting back. Cutting your cloth to suit, as my mother would say. Back of the cigarette packet calcs suggest I’ll save about €3000 a year excluding fuel and allowing for alternative modes of transport such as bus, taxi, train, car hire. I can hire a car for as little as €60 for a weekend.

I had started cycling to work over a year ago but would dodge it any chance I got — too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry.

They say the most important part of motivation is the first five minutes. Yeah, I tell myself, that’s true, but on a sleet-driven, dark December morn, that first five minutes can be sheer hell. And no amount of Aldi-of-a-Thursday cycle wear can change that — even if you do happen to get the galoshes without being wounded in the melee.

Once on the bike I noticed how the car had distorted my sense of distance. I was driving distances that I could walk in less than ten minutes and cycle in three.

When it comes to living without a car, children, as is their wont, can put a spanner in the works alright. They will always seem to pick a play date friend that lives farthest away, off the bus route and up a hill.

One of the greatest investments I ever made was €60 for a seat that fixes onto the bar of the bike for my daughter. Dads, do it — you’ll have a friend for life. She may become a lazy friend but she’ll be a friend.


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