“Whoa, whoa. You better watch what you say about my car. She’s real sensitive.”– Arnie Cunningham in Stephen King’s Christine
“She comes in sixteen colours, she’ll suck your money dry, gives shitty mileage but come on lets get inside.”– The Blue Tones, ‘Autophilia’
The first and only time I sat in the driver’s seat of a car was when I was nine years old: my dad had gone into a supermarket, leaving me alone in the parked motor. Being a petulant little shit, I decided to play with the dashboard and pretend to be my dad for a while. “Hey, where’s your indicator, mate!?”
Among other things–jerking the steering wheel this way and that, rattling the gear stick, honking the horn–I had compressed the accelerator pedal a good number of times. This, it seems, flooded the fuel tank, leaving us stranded like castaways in Tesco’s car park. It had been a mildly fun fifteen minutes, but the subsequent two-week grounding without pocket money may have had something to do with my ongoing dislike of cars.
To say that my dislike of cars stems from a single childhood association isn’t really true. I dislike them on rational and aesthetic levels too. They’re smelly, noisy, dangerous, expensive, complicated, boring and are responsible for many societal ills.
Driving to work, most people will agree, is no inconsiderable source of stress. The traffic is a nightmare in both directions because everyone starts and finishes work at the same time. What would be a twenty-minute pootle under other circumstances takes an hour. That’s why they call it “rush hour” in spite of the fact that it lasts at least two hours and that the “rushing” really just involves “sitting.” You shout and swear and honk the horn–that most inarticulate cry of frustration–at other drivers who, after all, only have the same problem as you do. Someone’s caused an accident up ahead and everything’s ground to a halt. Life-halting fumes drift in through the ventilation system. Everything on the radio is rubbish. You are slowly dying. This is your life! Your time on Earth!
There are so many benefits to walking instead of driving. The only downside to an urban stroll is the exposure to the noise and emissions caused by cars. Even in parks, the roar of the traffic can still be heard.
I like to engage with people: to watch them or talk to them or to just be around them. You can’t very well do either if you’re driving around in your own private little bubble. You can, however, do it on a bus or a train. You might meet someone who’ll change your life. Otherwise, it’s just nice to be amongst the thrum of other human beings instead of alone in a car that smells of naff upholstery and chemicalicious air-freshener.
Reading a short story or an essay or the lighter pages of a newspaper on public transport is a wonderful idle pleasure. If you read when you drive, you get arrested or dead. Moreover, who wants to have to concentrate so intently just to get somewhere? On a train, you can relax and glide along the tracks. On foot, you can take your time and explore the nitty-gritty of your city or town. If you cast a glance upwards, you’ll see statues and turrets missed by anyone with the misfortune to be imprisoned in a car. Be a flaneur; imagine yourself as a tireless paladin on an epic à pied adventure (“for God and for valour, he strode through the land”).
Walking instead of driving introduces an element of exercise into your life. Walk everywhere, spend less time in the gym. Feel less guilty about eating cake. Gym membership is another expensive overhead: the cost of shoe leather, meanwhile, is negligible. Walking, running and cycling are good for you. Driving a car is lazy, inefficient and good for no one.
Why be responsible for another stinking heap of metal on the road when you can disappear–treading lightly–into the city on foot? Why contribute to congestion problems and pollute the already acrid air? Why be responsible for consuming our rapidly-diminishing oil reserves so that America has to go to war again? As a pedestrian, you’ll never have to patronise (or be patronised by) a Kwik Fit or pay out a hard-won kajillion for something called a flange compactor. You’ll never have to change a tire. You’ll never contribute to childhood asthma.
Cars are expensive. In addition to the cost of petrol and maintenance and running it through the car wash every so often, you’ve got insurance and road tax and, if you live in the wrong place, you’ve got congestion fees and toll booths to pay as well. And then there’s your parking permit or a meter to feed or expensive parking tickets when you forget to do so. None of this is even to mention the cost of buying the car in the first place, or that of the real estate it takes up, and of the various stresses it imposes on you. Walk more, work less.
Have you ever tried to have sex in a car? It’s supposed to be exciting or something–a romantic hangover of the days when American teens would park their dad’s cars at Inspiration Point–but it makes me think of the Harlan Ellison story in which the protagonists are trapped in the unnatural belly of a giant robot. The upholstery has a distracting 1982 smell and there’s always the fear that you might fall backwards and wind up impaled on the gear stick.
I’ve never needed a car. Ever. And I can’t ever envision a situation where I might need one. They’re just another marketable commodity in place of an original simple pleasure; and yet another purchasable replacement for personality. They are products of anxiety: a car supposedly brings security and seclusion, but walking and cycling and taking public transport bring freedom and inclusion.
I could go on, but we’d be here all day. So I’ll just say that the final argument against cars is encapsulated in two words: “Jeremy” and “Clarkson.” If you’re the sort of person who thinks Jeremy Clarkson is “okay really”, even though he fetishises cars and has the wit of a carburettor, please send your copy of New Escapologist back to me and apply for a full refund. I can’t abide Clarksonites reading our magazine. [2019 update: This offer has now expired!]
Lose the car. Rediscover walking. Honestly, you’ll not regret it.
This short essay was written in 2010 by Robert Wringham and originally published in New Escapologist Issue Three. It was added to the New Escapologist online archive thanks to funders via our Patreon page. The original piece had no accompanying artwork; the image of crushed cars used here was scraped from the license-free Interwebs.