‘Bankers’ wives like black Range Rovers – they make them feel like Posh Spice’
Cycling around old London town, I am astonished and horrified by the absurdly large numbers of cars on the roads.
In Notting Hill, I have lost count of the black Range Rovers driven by banker’s daft wives, clogging up the side streets and double-parking outside pricey delis. The minicab company Uber has deposited an estimated 20,000 Toyota Priuses on the roads of the capital. And increasing numbers of Teslas can be seen, the eccentricities and childish tantrums of the company’s founder, Elon Musk, having done nothing to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for his creations. Most of these cars sit in the traffic jams with a single occupant, costing their owners a small fortune, and belching fumes.
It is pure joy to pedal past lines of traffic on Uxbridge Road on my Raleigh Chiltern (cost: £99) and whizz across the parks. Ever since the car was invented, the admen have sold them as a passport to freedom, but the reality is that they are a passport to mental woe, ill health and heavy spending. We should really be working on getting cars out of the cities completely.
And there is a good financial argument for doing so. Mrs Mouse and I sat down recently to calculate the amount of money we spend each year on motoring. There is the car itself, the hyperbolically titled Vauxhall Vectra Elite from 2007 which cost us £1,000 (I would never, ever join those ranks of poor suckers who buy a new car on hire purchase). That’s probably about as cheap as you can get, and this car is probably the cheapest to maintain ever. But even this humble vehicle costs a fortune to maintain in the city.
Add up insurance (£1,200), AA membership (£200), resident’s parking (£119), MOT (£100), maintenance (£500), petrol (£1,000), parking fines (£200) and speeding fines (£200), and you get a grand total of well over £4,000. Factor in the cost of the car and you’re talking at least £5,000 a year – or £14 a day, or £100 a week, or something between 60p and one pound per mile.
And that’s not including the immense amount of headache and stress involved. So to drive 500 miles does not cost the mere expense of the petrol, which would be only £70. It would be more like £400 or £500. That is an awful lot of money. How many days do we have to work to get £500 after tax? It takes most of us a week to earn the money to drive from London to Cornwall and back. Add in the driving time and you’d be quicker going by bicycle – or walking.
If you’re a town mouse, it would be far cheaper to hire a car when needed. A nice new Ford Focus costs a mere £140 a week to rent. And for short trips, bike, get taxis or take a bus. This was the philosophy of the great Kingsley Amis, who never learned to drive; partly through fear but also because he sensibly believed that car ownership in town was a waste of money. The philosopher Ivan Illich argued in the Seventies that cars were generally a silly waste of money.
Car ownership in the country is another thing entirely. When we lived on the wilds of Exmoor, a car was invaluable; but, in the city, not at all.
I recently returned from Zurich, where congestion is light and there are many trams. The great environmental writer John Vidal recently argued that all cities should be car-free as this would drastically reduce pollution and ill health. Some silly techno-futurists reckon that we are heading towards a future of driverless cars which will be somehow shared. This is never going to happen – human beings are too clever to be replaced by a machine. And as for electric cars, well, they are still cars, clogging up the blimmin’ streets.
What Town Mouse wants is a city of trams, buses, black cabs and bicycle lanes, like wonderful Copenhagen.
The problem is, people still love their cars. Because people have been conditioned by decades of advertising and American movies, cars still denote status and glamour and freedom. The bankers’ wives in Notting Hill pretend to like black Range Rovers because they are safe, but it is actually because they make them feel like Posh Spice. They like the status. The first thing drug dealers do when they get a little cash is to buy an absurdly expensive car on HP and sit in it, on it or near it in full public view. Workers at corporations judge their worth by the cost of the car they’re given by the company.
Town Mice like me, who care not a fig about cars and have no interest in them whatsoever, appear to be in a minority. This is nothing new: in the old books, the aspiring bourgeois would dream of owning a coach and six with a liveried footman. Owning our own means of transport and making it as bling as possible is an ancient preoccupation. And I have to confess to feeling some pleasure when I get in the driving seat and turn the key.
But for the childless or those newly liberated from the yoke of parenting, there really is no excuse whatsoever. Ditch the car and get on your bike. It’s the future.