Town Mouse

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Tom Hodgkin­son

‘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.

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