A horrifying thing occurred the other day. I found myself behind the wheel, driving around Hyde Park Corner. It has only taken me 13 years since passing my test to muster up the courage to drive in the city but that wasn’t the worst of it. I was doing it because I am considering buying a car of my own: a betrayal of all that my inner Londoner holds dear.
Part of the joy of the urban experience is being able to put off owning, steering or in any way dealing with a car for as long as humanly possible. It is, in a sense, a glorious extended adolescence in which public transport and private taxi companies step seamlessly into the role of parental chauffeur. For many New Yorkers, not getting a licence until long after you’ve finished college is a point of pride. Londoners don’t boast about their wheels, they boast about their mastery of night-bus routes.
Cities are defined by their need for speed. Whether on the pavement or on the roads, the striving population wants to get there quicker, shave seconds off their personal best. The traffic-snarled car is becoming an outdated beast: a belching, expensive monster overtaken by slicker, greener, faster and hipper forms of transport. The Liberal Democrats want all petrol-powered models off the roads by 2040. According to Transport for London, trips by car in the capital decreased by 13 per cent between 2001 and 2011. In the same period, cycle trips went up by more than 66 per cent.
This is an urban phenomenon. The nation’s car industry as a whole is forging ahead. Earlier this month, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders forecast that more than 2.2m new cars would be sold in the UK in 2013, up by 8 per cent from last year. But the majority are not bound for the capital. Recent census data show that London is now the only place in England and Wales to have fewer cars and vans than households: 42 per cent do without.
Why would most sensible city dwellers, spoon-fed by some of the best public transport in the world, invest in what is essentially an expensive and enormously underutilised asset? The poor thing languishes in a parking space, if you’re lucky enough to find one, where it becomes a sitting target for thieves, sucking up petrol and insurance premiums and only allowed out for small infrequent expeditions. When Jack Kerouac pondered “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” in On the Road, he was not talking about an occasional trip to Tesco.
Londoners are lucky that, regardless of traffic, our city has always been a walker’s paradise – avoiding the fate forecast for many of its US peers by the great city thinker Jane Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead. “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities,” she wrote. As the authorities have smartened up pedestrian amenities, more and more of us are striding out. Last month, a Roads Task Force report showed that over a quarter of all London journeys are made entirely on foot, more than six million each day. My daily trek into work is heaving with walkers, cyclists and – the other morning – a fox cub boldly setting out on his commute via the Elephant and Castle roundabout.
Even when four wheels are necessary, actually owning them no longer is. For today’s ever status-conscious urbanite, a plethora of apps have replaced the need for off-street parking. With a simple swipe of the smartphone, we can get wherever we need to go, whether that’s by renting the local Zipcar, conveniently situated round the corner, for the weekend or by becoming one of the passengers that the worryingly addictive Hailo app matches with a passing taxi every four seconds somewhere around the world.
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Car-sharing schemes are also popping up everywhere. Even those people who do own vehicles realise there is money to be made by providing a service for those without. In San Francisco, the popular Lyft service pairs local drivers with lift-hungry passengers (the “suggested donation” is low but you have to be able to stomach the mandatory fist bumps).
So with all this, why consider investing in a car at all? In my case, the possibility of acquiring one heralds the truly horrifying adult concept of having children. Just as Cyril Connolly’s famous pram in the hall became the “enemy of good art”, so the car seat – and related clobber – have become the nemesis of spontaneous travel. For others, getting put on someone’s car insurance – or “driving in sin” as one friend remarked – is a sign of maturity almost akin to moving in together.
Getting your own wheels often signifies a psychological shift: the end of the try-everything-but-commit-to-nothing instinct that draws so many to the city. It’s not just Hyde Park Corner that’s off-putting. It’s the sense that from now on we’ll be navigating the city of our future in what is increasingly a relic of the past.
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine.
Simon Kuper is away