Lessons from the low-car life

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 151.

At our meeting in March we talked to families who live a low-car life: they don’t own a car and use cycles and public transport for the majority of journeys. Here two of the speakers share their learnings.

Embracing the benefits of a new kind of lifestyle

We are a family of two adults and three children aged 14, 12 and 9, and live in Sawston, 7 miles south of Cambridge. We sold our car at the beginning of March 2020. It was falling into disrepair because we hadn’t used it enough, so we decided to sell it and see what happened.

An important thing to know about us is that we’re not a ‘car-free’ family so much as a family which is unusually enthusiastic about bikes and public transport. We love to cycle tour as a family on our big bikes and we’re useless at travelling by car. In the car, after about 30 minutes someone would be screeching, after 40 minutes the hitting started, and longer than an hour someone would be sick. We regularly take the train to Manchester, and really enjoy the journey – even the time thunderstorms and flooding closed lines, there were no seats, and we eventually arrived in Manchester Piccadilly at 2am! Here are some of the benefits we’ve gained from our low-car life.

1) Our world is smaller, but more detailed

We don’t stare out of the window, wondering what we would do today if only we had a car. We get out to different locations without car parks. We’ve been to beautiful places and seen intriguing things, and are all the happier for it.

2020 tour with big bikes to Sudbury.

Yasmin with a trailer full of groceries including toilet roll2) Car-free shopping is simpler

10 years ago I read the book Energy Glut by Ian Roberts, which presents a compelling case that we should do all our food shopping by foot or cycle – for the health of the planet and us. This has made our lives much simpler. We don’t need a huge kitchen because I cunningly store most of our food at our lovely greengrocer and Co-op! Sometimes I trundle the kids’ old trailer into the village to buy a sack of potatoes, a sack of onions, and a big pack of loo roll. Other than that, shopping is carried on our backs or in panniers. Nearly all of our shopping is done on Sawston High Street and I cycle into Mill Road every other month for lentils and family-size packets of spices from Al-Amin.

3) We see ourselves within history

Families have not always had a car and they don’t always have one now: in 2019, 17,023 households in UK didn’t own a car. In 2013-14, 15% of households in rural towns had no car, and 6% of households in rural villages had no car.

4) We feel freer – and richer

I found the car such a burden – it was so demanding. Feed me, insure me, MOT me, tax me, use me, service me, clean me! Plus the mental load of all that fossil fuel – I’m glad that it is no longer extracted in my name to the same extent.

5) We feel part of our community

We’ve been living the ’15-minute life’ for years. The local greengrocer’s is about the same price as the supermarket, but the produce is tastier. Our local baker also works for the fire service. Faced with the choice between giving money to a faceless supermarket executive and someone who would literally save me from a burning building, I know who I’d rather choose!

Yasmin Emerson

Things I’d like decision-makers to know

Two pictures of Anna's family on bikes
Cycling with children can make you see dangers you didn’t appreciate before and lead you to avoid some routes. When busy streets went quiet in the first lockdown, it opened up the city to Anna’s family.
My family of five lives in Chesterton; we live a very local life and travel mostly on foot or by cycle. I’ve lived without a car for nearly all my adult life – it started because I lived in a cycling-friendly city with good public transport (Oxford) as a teenager and couldn’t afford driving lessons, and then became more about the environment, social justice and the ease of living in Cambridge without a motor vehicle. I know that not everyone is able to reduce their car use, but I’d like local decision-makers to enable more people to choose walking and cycling for everyday journeys.

These are some of the things I’ve learned in the last 25 years of low-car living:

1) Children need cycle training AND good infrastructure

Cycling Proficiency lessons (the forerunner to Bikeability) gave me confidence on a bike, but the filtered road I lived on helped me practice what I’d learnt. Safe streets and cycleways are essential for helping young people start and continue to cycle.

2) Without good cycle routes, rural teens are stranded

I used to cycle three miles along a shared-use path by a dual carriageway to get to sixth form: being raised in the cycling culture of Oxford city, this seemed a natural choice. However, many of my rural contemporaries went straight from getting the school bus to driving their own cars. Village links weren’t good and being chauffered around by parents was common. These days, fewer young people can afford to drive, meaning their independence is stifled. It doesn’t have to be like this. We need to invest in links like the Butt Lane route between Milton and Impington so that teenagers can get to school under their own steam and choose cycling to get to activities and friends’ houses.

3) Commuters will cycle further than you think

A few years after moving to Cambridge, my employer moved out to Swaffham Bulbeck and I began cycling eight miles each way to and from work. I enjoyed it and found that the speed of my journey was important. The direct route (part of National Cycle Network 51) meant my journey was often faster than the bus and, from a personal safety point of view, I liked that much of the route was beside a main road. Often rural routes are designed for ‘scenic’ leisure rides, but if they’re important links for work, school and shopping journeys they need to allow people cycling to travel at a reasonable speed and feel safe. This includes avoiding unnecessary push-buttons or give-ways at side roads or exclusionary barriers to ‘slow cyclists down’.

4) Public transport and cycling complement each other

I didn’t always cycle my rural route on cold, dark nights. In the winter, I often took the bus instead. That bus route has now been drastically cut back – I’d probably end up buying a car if I was working there these days. Public transport and other shared travel infrastructure such as car clubs are essential to complement cycling and walking infrastructure. This is not just about enabling people to live a low-car life through choice but also about giving those who can’t drive increased options and freedom.

5) Cycling with children is like learning to cycle all over again

Suddenly you see dangers you didn’t appreciate before. Once I had children, I discovered there were many places I was confident to cycle alone where I wouldn’t go with a baby in a bike trailer or an accompanied child on their own bike. The off-road paths and quiet routes are invaluable. When busy streets went quiet in the first lockdown of 2020, it opened up the city to my family and my eyes to the potential in urban design. We can create safe routes for walking and cycling, liveable places and 15-minute neighbourhoods. Reducing car traffic increases all sorts of other benefits – we just have to make the decision to do it.

Anna Williams