Imagining a future beyond car ownership

What makes cars important is not that we own them, but how we use them

August 14, 2022
Should there really be a car parked outside where you live just because that’s what everybody else does? Image: Colin Underhill / Alamy Stock Photo
Should there really be a car parked outside where you live just because that’s what everybody else does? Image: Colin Underhill / Alamy Stock Photo

Some idiot has bashed my car. It was minding its own business in the Gatwick north terminal short stay car park, but when my wife went to retrieve it after a short trip away it was, well, just not the same. Crrrrrunch. (It may have been a wham. There were no witnesses.)

Of course, the culprit did not leave their details; of course the CCTV camera was not aiming at the scene of the crime; and, of course the car park company cannot and will not accept any liability. Legally and financially, we are screwed. The car is a write-off.

Let me try to reframe this regrettable turn of events into something more positive. As Londoners we were facing next year’s (probable) extension of the ultra low emission zone, which means that our 11-year-old Passat diesel was simply not going to cut the environmental mustard any longer. Indeed, we probably should have got rid of it already, but as very low-mileage car owners our polluter guilt was manageable.

As of today, we are no longer car owners. But should we be? Do we need to be? Here too some cognitive effort is required. As Gen Xers, my wife and I grew up with the assumption that, you know, you just ought to own a car. Doesn’t have to be a fancy one. But there should be a car parked outside where you live because, well, that’s what everybody else does, right? Even if it isn’t being used for over 90 per cent of the time.

The pros and cons of car ownership, the uses and the hassles, can be listed quite quickly. We have two school-age children who sometimes require lifts. I am an old-fashioned hunter gatherer who likes driving to the supermarket to do a weekly shop. There are family members on the south coast to visit, who are more easily, more quickly and more cheaply reachable in a car than on a train.

But clearly most, and perhaps all, of these reasons crumble on closer inspection, like a dodgy old exhaust pipe. You don’t have to own a car to do any of these things. As the business gurus like to say, DIY enthusiasts don’t especially want a drill, what they want are holes. And maybe we don’t want a car, what we want is to be able to get around. We want mobility.

Let’s concede that capitalism has come up with some alternatives to owning a car outright. There are Zipcars, which you hire by the hour only when you need one. There is Uber and other taxi firms. There is also, if you live in Greater London, a lot of public transport. There are bicycles.

Capitalism has also come up with the “personal contract purchase,” or PCP mechanism, to my mind a questionable arrangement which usually involves a substantial down payment, followed by three or so years of large monthly payments, followed by… you giving the car back! You don’t own it at all, even though you hand over many, many thousands of pounds (and quite possibly and mistakenly tell your friends and family that you have “bought” a new car). It is leasing, not buying. And it costs.

I am probably wrestling with another of those “first world problems” here. But then conscious capitalism, and communal ownership, are the sort of things that will be needed if we are going to live and consume on a more sustainable basis. We do not all need to have a car outside our front door sitting idle for days on end. And we have got to stop driving cars propelled by an internal combustion engine, technology whose origins date from over 100 years ago and whose harmful impacts are known. It’s an electric vehicle (or at least in the short term a hybrid) for me from now on, rented, at some expense.

This is going to cost me, and so it should. A better and more sustainable capitalism will mean prices which reflect much more accurately the true cost of what we buy, consume and use. This summer we have seen all too clearly what is happening to our planet. Something has got to change: our behaviour and our spending decisions. The middle of a cost-of-living crisis is not a good time to have this discussion. But we have got to have it, and act on what we know and can see happening before our eyes.

Maybe that unseen idiot at Gatwick did me a favour. Environmental protests, even unwitting ones, can take many forms.