My Car-Free Week

Phillipa Smith spends a week without her car, here’s how she got on.

When I first committed to spending a week without my car, it was going to be hypothetical. I’d leave my reliable little Mini at home and perhaps sneakily drive to the gym or supermarket after work, away from the judgmental gazes of my lovely colleagues. However, life had other plans for me, and on my regular drive to work one day, my car stopped at a roundabout and wouldn’t restart. After a kind gentleman helped me to get it going again, we limped to the nearest garage where the car was destined to stay put for a week. It looked like I was going to have to do this properly.

If, like me, you work somewhere remote, aren’t serviced properly by public transport, or simply live too far away to walk, the chances are you’ll drive to work. According to the RAC Foundation, there are 26.5 million working people aged 16-74 in England and Wales, and of these, 16.7 million people either drive themselves to work (15.3 million) or catch a lift (1.4 million). The RAC state that in rural areas, nearly three quarters (73.4 per cent) of workers travel by car (whether as driver or passenger). It might surprise you that even amongst Londoners, the car is the most popular single mode of travel, used by 29.8 per cent of workers. That’s an awful lot of people using cars every single day, and a significant impact on the environment.

The first, and biggest, challenge was getting to and from work. It’s 14 miles and usually takes me around 30 minutes door-to-door, traffic depending. I decided to reach out to my fellow colleagues, and sent an email to the company asking if anyone else travelled the same route as me. It turned out many did. I arranged a lift with Gemma, who drives near my house every day – how had we never thought about sharing a ride before? I took a pleasant 10 minute walk to our agreed meeting place each morning feeling happy that, with my car out of action and off the road, I wasn’t adding to the air pollution caused by transport.

Transport is the most polluting UK sector ( with diesel and petrol cars cited as the main sources. In a survey by consumer group Which? it was revealed that one in three cars in Britain runs on diesel – and 95 per cent of diesel cars emit more nitrogen oxides than is legally allowed. But it’s not just diesel cars – two-thirds of petrol cars break the carbon monoxide limit, too. The fumes pumped out by our vehicles are responsible for a whole host of problems – from rising asthma rates (up by 25 per cent over a decade according to data from the ONS), climate change and premature death – a report by King’s College London claims that UK air pollution causes 36,000 deaths a year.

Commuting aside, I began to think about how far I have to travel to do my daily rituals – the gym is a 10 minute drive away, the supermarket about the same. I try my best to combine both in one trip but, honestly, it doesn’t always happen. I managed to get a bus that dropped me near enough to walk to my evening yoga class. I’ll admit, I arrived flustered and wind-beaten after a trek down a dark, pavement-less road. I’m sure if the bus had gone that little bit closer, I would happily take it again. Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth, says: “Rather than sinking vast sums into new roads, and the white elephant that is HS2, the country could reap so many benefits if investment was made in walking, cycling, new trams, fixing existing railways and providing free bus services.” As I stood in the rain waiting 30 minutes for my bus home, I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Further figures from the RAC Foundation state that at the end of September 2018, there were 38.4 million vehicles licensed for use on the roads in the UK, 31.6 million of which were cars – a truly staggering amount. We can’t keep ignoring the impact our habits are having on the planet and our health. So, what can we do? Lift sharing is a great start. A neighbour had asked me where my car was and kindly offered me a lift to the supermarket to coincide with her shop – it’s scary to think how many times we’ve done the exact same journey on the same day. If you can walk somewhere you need to go to, do so. If it’s a short trip, cycle it. When I lived in London I never owned a car, I didn’t even have a license then, and relied solely on public transport and my trusty old bike. It surprised me how much my habits have changed, how dependent on my car I have become, and despite now living in the countryside, in some ways my environmental impact is more. So, I plan to lift share more. I’m looking at gyms and classes closer to home and I’m going to return the favour and take my neighbour to the shops this week. And, when the weather gets better, I’ll be on that bus to yoga every week.