Joys of the 18ft High Club: Casting aside the burden of car ownership has been the route to freedom

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The Independent Online
For more than two years now my wife and I have managed without a car. It's a great conversation-stopper. Recovering, faces drained of blood, people say: 'Sensible. Yes, right, what a good idea. If only we could, mmm, we really must think about it. . . And pretty soon they're back on song with 'can't even park outside my own front door nowadays and 'Christ, Swiss Cottage was solid.

We began in the early Sixties with a mini-van, then a Bedford bus, Renaults 4, 5, 16 and 18, a Peugeot estate and a Volvo. Finally we found ourselves, dressed for an evening out, searching the street for the Honda Accord that had been taken by some lads for a jaunt to Wembley, where police found it a few days later. We decided at last to practise what I'd preached in my 1974 play The Freeway, which argued that the freedom promised by the car is a sell and that all we're heading for is an auto-da-fe.

For us this casting-off has meant an end to the daily struggle to find a space or repair the damage; no more praying it will start; will the windscreen be iced over, the player gone; no wondering where we last left it; no more extortion from the garage, AA dues, road tax, insurance, parking fines or permits, visits to pumps, exhaust centres or car-washes, not to mention having a clearer conscience about poison gas emissions. When someone glares at my cigarette, I ask if they run a car.

We're lucky, of course. We live equidistant between two tube stations, double-deckers call in droves along both main roads, Hoppas and Sprintas live up to their names from here to Chelsea, the overground takes us to see shows at Stratford East, boats at Richmond, palm trees at Kew; cabs cruise the streets for carriage trade.

Our children are grown up and gone. We both work at home. To visit friends outside London we hire automatics by the day. What can't be avoided is everyone else's cars. Our streets are a free NCP for the whole of Hampstead and the northern suburbs, nose to tail at every kerb. There is still usually a foot or two between each vehicle, though less with every passing day so that, with ever finer steering locks, one day those gaps will close and we walkers will be trapped on our pavements, unable to break through the cordon.

Nor can we avoid helping motorists pay for the damage they do to roads and buildings, the costs to the NHS of dead and injured and the cracks made in the ozone eggshell by the poisons farted out in their traffic jams. Nor can the streets be cleaned. Those gutter-brush and spraying vehicles were long ago scrapped as local authorities gave up the struggle. Even to clear domestic rubbish is to work in warlike conditions, with enraged motorists leaning on their horns at the least delay by a double-parked Vulture.

Isn't it hell though, you ask, to travel round London on the terrible transport system that's made unworkable by all the cars we wouldn't drive if we could help it?

No, not as bad as all that. The Tube has always been dreary but it's still the quickest way between two points and is even, in parts, improving. Mysterious tribal variations persist between the disastrous Northern and pleasant Jubilee, a short distance apart in space but 50 years in quality. Even so, at Swiss Cottage last night I had to help a young mother down the steps with her buggy because one escalator's been out of action for the past six months. Why, just to mend a machine? And no other way for her or the halt or lame to get down? No human on duty to help her? All the Paolozzi murals are no use here. Nor is the muzak squelched out at Charing Cross, for which we have paid but not voted.

Buses are another thing altogether: still the best way to travel. On the crammed Hoppas, there's a social life car drivers never know, a racial cocktail both stirred and shaken as the drivers chase through car-crammed streets, showing off their well-known sense of rhythm. We enjoy too the punctual and (I have to admit) privatised double-decker that gives us - and often only us - a high Cineramic view of Bloomsbury squares, at this season with their planes and chestnuts in leaf and blossom, then a leisurely look along the Strand and a final lap across the Thames where we take the steps to the dubious delights of the South Bank. En route you can look into upstairs windows and back gardens, catching Hopperesque glimpses of solitary women in offices while down below, cars scuttle like woodlice or ladybirds. You can dream while somebody else drives.

That said, London Transport's far from good enough and will be a Cinderella service as long as the Government pursues its barmy roadbuilding policy, now kept alive only by the motor and construction industries, telling us in every commercial break that car equals prick, that this dirty, pollutive and bloodstained mechanism is in some way attractive. Move all that money to say the opposite, that buses are sexy. Perhaps start the rumour of an 18 Feet High Club.

Public transport includes taxis. There should be far more of all kinds, from the expensive blacks, for film stars, novelists and Transport Ministers who have to be kept hidden, to minicabs within the means of the young mother with her buggy. More tribal wars to be settled here so that these cars can be in perpetual motion, not left to clog our streets.

It's good to hear that the police have given up on car crime, as it's the criminals who will finally force drivers to see sense. After all why shouldn't these costly artefacts be stolen? You don't leave antiques in the gutter or hang diamond neck-laces from trees. A low estimate of the value of parked cars in this street alone is pounds 1,250,000. Multiply that and you see where the money could come from for an efficient, free mixture of punctual buses and trains (one of fascism's better ideas) and cheap taxis.

Clean streets, cleaner air. The pedestrian would cease to be a bullied victim confined to ghettos called precincts or malls. The AA would no longer call us 'the greatest menace on the roads today'. A great many people trapped in the privacy of their cars would discover that there is such a thing as Society.

(Photograph omitted)

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