comment from The Guardian, 22 September 2011
It started with a shake of the head, and that annoyingly knowing garage mechanic grin. “Well, sir,” he said, and began listing a baffling series of problems to do with tyres, brakes, springs, linings, discs and the exhaust catalyst.
My Saab 900 was in for its MOT, and had failed spectacularly. The minimum cost to make it roadworthy, the mechanic told me, would be £2,240 - though he would recommend additional repairs amounting to well over £3,000.
It was then I knew that my 11-year-old, 120,000-mile affair was over. The car that had played the soundtracks to my summer holidays, taken my Mum and Dad to the beach, and seen my girls become women, had to go.
I hadn’t meant to become emotionally attached to a large lump of polluting plastic, glass and metal, but it happened. So when the Saab was transported up the street on its way to the scrapyard, I felt an unexpected pang.
That was over a year ago now, and in recent days I’ve been assessing what we decided to do next. My partner and I thought we would try, for the first time in 25 years, to manage without owning a car. If it didn’t work, we said, we could always buy another one.
How did we fare? The first thing to say is that we would probably never have contemplated it if we hadn’t lived close to the centre of a city – Edinburgh – well served by buses and trains. It may not have been possible if our daughters hadn’t left to go to college.
That we liked cycling and walking around town, and that I worked from home, also helped. Perhaps the crucial thing, though, was the City Car Club, which rents locally available cars out to members.
The club had two cars parked at the end of our street, less than five minutes walk from our front door. So we paid our £50 and joined, meaning that whenever we felt we needed a car, we could hire one online and pick it up.
At first it felt uncomfortable - even slightly scary - to be without a car in the garage, as if one of our life props was missing. But we soon got used to it, and made sure that we carried on doing all the things we liked to do.
We hired cars for days out in the countryside, to visit friends and to hear music. We drove out of town to pick up flatpack kits and we ferried people to and from the station or the airport.
Naturally, there were downsides. Twice the City Car Club overcharged us, though that was quickly corrected. When we first tried to drive the club’s brand new hybrid Toyota Prius, we couldn’t work out how to start it.
We have had to be more organised than we used to be about making journeys, and more disciplined about timings. And we’ve thought harder about the need to travel, and been wary about exploiting friends willing to offer lifts
But there were also unexpected upsides. Friends save on parking charges by using our driveway, as do decorators and roofers. There is more room in the garage for our bikes.
We’ve discovered that it’s so much easier to go to Leeds or Manchester by train than car. We’ve enjoyed bus journeys home after a good night out, and we’ve even started to form an emotional attachment to the Prius, oddly enhanced by the fact that we share it with others unknown.
Above all, though, there’s the money we’ve saved. According to my sums, our first year in the car club cost us about £575, excluding fuel. That’s for around 50 journeys, mostly of 20 miles or more.
If we’d still had a car, we’d have to have paid more than that in tax (£205), insurance (£218, including an 11-year no-claims bonus) and maintenance/MOT (£200?). If we add in the cost of buying a decent second-hand car (say, £1,200 a year over 11 years like the Saab), I reckon we’ve saved at least £1,200.
In other words, the cost of not owning a car has been a third of the cost of owning a car. The calculation doesn’t take account of everything, but I’m confident it’s roughly right.
It won’t be the same for everyone, but for us it’s worked. We won’t be buying another car, and I’ve long since got over losing the Saab. We will carry on, car-less but happy.