We Loved the Effort

Or, how we once lived perambulatory for a year and learned to love the bus (and online grocery delivery).

So…  we’ve bought a car.

There. I said it.

I know this post is a while in coming – we bought the car a few weeks ago – but it’s been hard to figure out the right way to put it out there.  I hinted earlier that our wee experiment was coming to an end.  In our minds, somewhat prematurely, thanks to the small matter of a few major earthquakes – in all honesty I’ve been actively looking for another car since a few weeks after the major earthquake on February 22.  As it turned out, we managed to last until our 12 months was up but more through chance than design.  We had the ever-generous Uncle Puff living with us after leaving his place in hard-hit Redcliffs, and he placed his car at our disposal until we were able to get our own one again.

Even that was a good opportunity to reflect on the nature of car ownership.  Three adults and one Bobbin of 35 months and counting (not only that but talking back, negotiating and planning holidays away from us too) living together – we do not all need our own cars.  Even though the three of us live and work quite different schedules, only having one vehicle was more than enough to make our lives a little easier.  The loss of car-free credibility offset by the penitence of being seen in the street-cred-diminishing, lemon yellow, ‘flying custard square.’*

But nothing’s ever perfect or rather, things are perfectly imperfect and we should be proud of what we’ve achieved.  I know that I’m so proud of Lizzie and Seraphine for loving the effort, through gritted teeth sometimes.  (You really should come and do the incredibly steep walk that Lizzie would do morning and night, in all weather, with a 10kg bobbin in a backpack complete with lunch, spare clothes, nappies etc., her own lunch and laptop – all in her work (read: not great for walking in) gear.  Not only was she single-handedly defying convenience she was sending it to it’s room for Time Out and no supper.  I love you, Peedie Mitten.

Our year of living (solely) perambulatory has come to an end but I do love the bus.  And using Shanks Pony, and I’m not so scared of walking up hills.  Here we are, no longer car-free with child, but also no longer unthinkingly beholden to Convenience either.  At least we’d like to think so.  But reflecting on my first month with a new car – it’s been something of an orgy of convenience, albeit a mindful one – damn I’m loving having a car again!

And with that exclamation point, *poof* goes whatever remaining car-free credibility we had.

So is this the end of Tyranny of Convenience?  No way.  You’ll never guess what we’ve just gone and done.  Buying a car was only the tip of the iceberg.

Oh dearie me, we’ve gone and bought a house.

* Actually, in all honesty, we love the flying custard square.

I Feel Your Pain

Now here’s a thing.

Last week there was a press release and subsequent coverage in NZ newspapers (maybe on tele too but I don’t know cos I don’t have one) about a study and its results.  Named the ‘Commuter Pain Study’ – that in itself should give you an idea of the contents and import of this piece of research – surveying 8,192 motorists in 20 cities on six continents.  Apart from telling us what we probably already knew it has gone a step further and ranked international cities according to an ‘index’.  In NZ the survey covered 937 respondents aged 18-64 years distributed between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.  The main points for Aotearoa that the study concluded with were:

– Almost three-quarters of NZ commuters use a car alone to get to work

I don't think this is the way to the beach, man.

– Resulting traffic congestion causing significant stress impacting health and productivity

– Increasing public transportation key to reducing stress caused by commuting

When it came to other solutions the study also had some facts:

Those commuters surveyed recognise that there is significant potential to reduce travel stress by improving public transportation (45 per cent), providing accurate and timely road conditions information (28 per cent) and introducing greater flexibility to work from home (29 per cent).

Now, the study which was commissioned by IBM and is more properly known as the IBM Global Commuter Pain Study also went as far as to say in the media release:

across all New Zealand cities drivers felt that much of this stress could be reduced by the greater use of technology in the management of traffic flows, sophisticated analytics of transport systems…

They don’t offer any actual data on how many or how they reached this conclusion and it didn’t seem to be in the survey index but I wonder if IBM have one or two ideas that might help?  But that’s another story…

Do NOT miss your exit...

Vested interests aside, it seems that the survey revealed some telling information about NZers dependence on private cars for commuting.  According to the study, 80 percent of drivers find aspects of their commute frustrating.  At least a quarter of respondents believe that traffic has negatively affected their health although this number varied regionally.

In the article based on this media release published by The Press (Christchurch) they immediately went out to get some vox pops on the findings.  Even though Christchurch has a public transport system that I would rate as very good several ‘people on the street’ described the buses as ‘just gross’ or unsatisfactory in a number of ways, therefore they continued to use their car to commute.  Apparently sitting in traffic literally idling money away, pumping poisonous gases into the air, and ‘negatively affecting their health’ by being a solo occupant of a motor car is preferable.

I feel like pointing out to those ‘buses are gross’ people that by commuting on the bus I not only save money, but I don’t have to find parking, I get to read or talk to friends, or do this, or experience this.

The study pointed out that only 10 per cent of NZers car-pool regularly.  Bizarre – if we doubled that we’d significantly reduce the cars on the road during the commute rush hours as well as halve (or better) our individual fuel and parking costs.  Auckland’s traffic problems would be majorly improved overnight.  And almost everyone’s wellbeing could be improved.

 

Among those who believe that traffic has negatively affected their health, increased stress (77 per cent) and anger (41 per cent) are the primary symptoms.  As many as 28 per cent of drivers believe that traffic has negatively affected their performance at work, university or school.

Many commuters feel that if their daily commute was reduced there are many other things they would do with their time including exercise (51 per cent), spend time with family (48 per cent) or sleep (30 per cent).

All that stress and anger and lost productivity – when you’d rather be exercising (playing), spending time with family & whanau (playing) or ‘sleeping’ (playing).  And it’s self-inflicted.

You poor things.

The Long, Hard Goodbye – Part II

… So now there is an empty space outside our house where the car used to be.

No, the earth hasn’t opened up and swallowed it as has happened elsewhere in Christchurch.

We’ve finally done it.  The last apron string has been cut and the temptation removed.  The Peej is gone.

I hadn’t actually driven her since that fateful day of cheating that seems so long ago.  It has actually been quite easy not to just jump in the car and head off for Indian takeaways these past few months.  Maybe because I forgot to regularly start her and the battery has died.  Oh well.  Just goes to show I’m telling the truth.

Since then we have used a car on a couple of occasions – once when one of our lovely friends went away for a week (most of the time it sat outside our house) and the other day when the gas bottles finally ran out.  At night. As we were cooking.  As they do.  And a lesson for our future selves – hardly anywhere refills gas bottles at night.

But sometime, a little over a week ago, a neigbour from round the corner asked about the car.  A couple more conversations and the next thing I was filling out change of ownership papers and taking my thirty pieces of silver (and some wild pork).  Someone who could do the repair work themselves was going to get a great little car.  She was the Bobbin’s first car and she had the rusks and flapjack crumbs to prove it.  We’ll miss her.

Oh well, we’re up to 4 months of living car free and she’s off to a new life with 14 pig dogs and a hunter.  She should probably start a blog of her own.

Mmmm, wild pork…

The Long, Hard Goodbye

Not sure why I’ve found it so hard to get the car ready to sell.  It wasn’t as if I could drive it anywhere (no WOF) and I was keen to get whatever cash I could for it before it deteriorates any more.  But still, I just couldn’t seem to bring myself to do it.

Poor Peej, sitting for 4 months now and looking very forlorn out the front of our house.  I noticed her tyres have started to go down a bit, her hope deflating a little every day.  A couple of Seraphine’s toys still lying in the back even though the child seat is long gone.  The warm, hand-knitted blanket that came with the car still sitting primly across the back seat.  The front console stuffed with receipts and parking coupons.  Two wheels are up on the verge (our street is one of Lyttelton’s classic narrow roads hugging the contour of the hill like the glorified horse track it is) and the grass is trying to grow around her.  She is a sad sight, and starting to look abandoned.

And then someone noticed her…

Car pooling, car sharing, car swapping and other forms of non-monogamous car love

So winter is here. As I type, hail is battering the windows and piling up in crunchy drifts outside. It feels like it’s been raining for weeks, and the ground is so saturated it pools water around our boots, and makes sodden squelching kisses when we move. I’ve been walking out in the dank sog with the little girl everyday, which actually hasn’t been too unpleasant, in fact in between showers it is beautiful, with the scent of wood smoke, the last leaves, coloured flags tumbling down the teeming gutters and the clouds so low over the hills that they cascade down the valleys like smoke and you feel like you could reach up and touch them. But there are a few errands accumulating that are going to need a car. So I thought I’d look into the options available to us here in New Zealand.

Car sharing

Here I’m talking about organisations that offer car sharing. The key ways in which car share companies differ from more conventional car hire companies is that they tend to have multiple pick up/drop off points in urban locations, and you can hire the car for as little as an hour. In a fully realised incarnation, with widely located depots, a good car share company offers pretty much the same flexibility as owning your own car, for far less money. Obviously you have to be a little more organised and save up your errands to do all at once, and you have to go pick up the car, but it’s still pretty damn handy.

Sadly, to date, New Zealand is served poorly in this way.  I am aware only of one car share company in the country, Cityhop and they have only one depot in Chistchurch, out by the airport (which is miles from Lyttelton, so of no use to us at present). However cityhop seem to have big plans, and their founder Victoria Carter runs a blog on the cityhop site, which offers inspiration on sustainable living, as well as updates on the progress of the cityhop network.

Victoria writes in a recent post “Most car share cars around the world are low energy fuel efficient vehicles that can be used by sometimes more than 7 different people in one day. Every car share vehicle is reported to take 20 privately owned cars off the road so that is a lot of energy being saved.”

Those are some pretty impressive claims right there. We await eagerly a central Christchurch cityhop pick up point.

Carpooling

This is an arrangement where several passengers share a car trip and also share the cost of that trip. This isn’t so handy for running errands, as you are dependent on someone else’s schedule and plans, but it’s great for commuting to and from work and could be used equally well for a weekly grocery shop, or similar.

You can set up your own carpool with your friends, or if you are lucky to live in a close community like Lyttelton, you can ask for help through the Time Bank or the weekly community newsletters; but if neither of these options is open to you there are also some more formal organisations that exist to make car pooling easier. If you Google “car pooling in NZ” several options come up.  Jayride is the most polished of the set ups, with a good user friendly interface. Gum Tree particularly caters to backpackers, but could be handy if you are planning a longer trip between cities. Here in Lyttelton we have our own dedicated carpooling forum Lyttelrides. I have to note though that all the carpooling organisations I checked out were quiet, with few offers of rides. Gum Tree was the most active, but that’s probably because there is a strong tradition in the backpacker culture of sharing rides. I’d like to think that the other sites were quiet because everyone is furiously carpooling independently among their friends. However, I suspect that the truth is really that not many people are car pooling. That’s a pity, because it’s a great way to cut costs, go a bit easier on the environment, make new friends and help people out by sharing the burden of personal transport.

In 2009, Auckland held its first carpool day in an attempt to get people to have a go at car pooling, which is a particularly smart idea in slow moving, car congested Auckland. The event website has some great advice for wannabe carpoolers.

Co-owning a car with friends

One thing we’ve considered is co-owning a car with some friends. We have a number of friends in the area who aren’t heavy car users and we could see this working quite nicely. It has obvious benefits in terms of cost and environmental impact. It would be more local than a car share depot, and more flexible than a carpooling arrangement.

More than one family putting money into the pot could also mean that we could afford to buy a more environmentally friendly (but more expensive) car.  We’d have to find some sensible way of sharing the car, which was organised, permanently accessible and didn’t involve one person doing a whole heap of admin.

It’s all good food for thought, but not a lot of people seem to be doing this, as I found out when I tried to research the topic further. I’d love to hear from any people that are doing this already or are planning to do this. From our personal perspective, we want to try and be completely car free for a while and re-boot our car using habits, before we embark on purchasing another vehicle, whether alone, or with others.

Spare the effort and spoil the child

Does anyone else remember in the eighties (or was it the seventies?) when we used the phrase ‘spare the effort’ to chastise someone for wasting our time?  Like ‘say it to the hand’, or whatever.
No?  Just me then…

I’m finding the different responses from people about our decision to go car-free really interesting.  As mentioned previously, many people’s first response is about how difficult it must/will be with a small child.  (I reckon it would probably be harder with a hormone-addled teenager whose biological clock is suddenly insisting they borrow Dad’s car and circulate aimlessly around the inner city like those early season young houseflies you suddenly find in your house revolving endlessly in the middle of the room in some sort of mysterious insect holding pattern – ‘fly’-boy racers?)  Other people have already commented here that many people cope with raising children without owning a car or living nearby many facilities.  Since that post we’ve had multiple friends come forward offering their services as emergency transport, including our neighbours (remember those things?) We’re feeling really loved!

Mostly everyone has been quietly respectful of our decision even if they think we’re ‘buutsies’ (our favourite Seraphine-ism – rhymes with footsies) I’m still waiting eagerly for the ‘don’t you think it’s a little irresponsible?’ response, which may quite possibly never come.  But one lives in hope.

The other response I’ve been getting is “why did you decide to do it in winter, of all times?”  Usually accompanied by the sort of expression one reserves for people talking loudly to themselves on buses.  On the surface it seems a fair enough question but if you really think about it, what they’re actually saying is “winter’s a rather inconvenient time to be without a car.”

Yes, what with this strange, possibly climate change-related weather probably partly caused by our use of fossil fuels, this is an extremely inconvenient time to get rid of our car.

On the other hand, we’ve had some excellent responses from people too.  Here’s one following an email discussion I was having.  This great comment is from Sophia who I quote, with her permission, verbatim.

People just impose their own ideas of what your life should be like.  People are always remarking that my “poor wee kids” have to walk miles in the rain and cold (which they do, and they do whinge and bitch about it).  However, they are warmly dressed, it’s good for them, and the rest of the world and they appreciated it when they realised how easy they found climbing Rangitoto/doing school cross country etc.  The whole time we had my Mum’s car (last week) they complained like anything about sitting in the car.

So there is an upside to marching Seraphine up and down the hills of Lyttelton at the tender age of 21 months.  Hot-housing for cross country running.  (Is there any money in that?)

Although I am an ignoramus

… who knows nothing about cars, when I read the slip from the mechanic, listing the things that needed to be fixed for the car to pass her WOF, even I could tell that we were looking at a Significant Amount of Money.

Now our car is an old bird, but when we bought her four years ago, she was the mythical unicorn of the used car trade, one careful lady owner, garaged for years, impeccably cared for with an up to date maintenance log, under 100,000 kms on her clock, putty coloured, hand-knitted blanket on the back seat, all that and the seller only wanted $600 for her. She was the most bargain-like of bargains. I’ve never admitted this to Ciaran, but my winter boots that year cost more than the car did. Still, in all fairness, the boots are still going and the car is not.

So she’s been a sweetheart, comfortable and economical to run, and reasonable to maintain, until now. I believe the old dear has caught a bad case of crap-out-itis, an inevitable condition of her advanced years. Ciaran is an optimistic soul; I tend more towards the negative interpretation of the facts, so holding the WOF slip in my hand I was thinking, “this is the beginning of the end for the old girl, even if we fix up these things and keep her legal, who’s to say that six months later, there won’t be a whole other raft of problems to contend with?” Sure enough, when Ciaran called the mechanic the next day to ask for his advice, he concurred that he didn’t think it was worth doing the work on the car.

It was time for a new car. We gritted our teeth, leapt on our trusty steed Trade Me (think eBay if you’re outside of NZ) and galloped off into the murky depths of the used car section. We’d talked about buying a Toyota Prius for our next car, but we’d talked about this in a nebulous, four or five years down the track kinda way, and hadn’t yet started saving for it. It quickly became apparent that even the cheaper, older models of Prius were beyond our current resources.

So then we asked ourselves how much we wanted to spend. We counted our pennies. Just a week ago, we got back from a five week trip to Scotland. We are officially not very solvent. We did some sums. The results were depressing. It wasn’t going to buy us a lot of car. Maybe half a 1970s Toyota Starlet.

We considered loans, both from established financial institutions, which makes no sense financially, as any fool knows, and from the Imperial Bank of Kind Relations, which we are both a bit uncomfortable with, even though we are blessed to be surrounded by these kind and generous folk.

Eventually, we came to the conclusion that through a combination of the paltry funds we did have, a small, short term loan from Nice People and a bit of nefarious black market activity, we could probably scrape together $2,000. Back to Trade Me. It was about this point in the evening’s proceedings that I lost the will to live, got grumpy and went off to eat chocolate cake.

I can’t actually remember which of us came up with the truly radical idea that maybe we could consider living without a car for a while.

A quick note here; obviously we are both well aware that living without a car is not actually a fate worse than death, that several squillion of the world’s inhabitants do not have a 4WD parked in their garage, and that it’s only spoilt bastards like us in the decadent West that get so dependent on the automobile that the prospects of living without one causes us to gasp, and pale and beat our breasts. This, when you think about it, is as good a reason as any of the other many good reasons to get rid of your wheels.

But to put this tale briefly in its local context, we live in New Zealand, which has a population of just over 4.3 million people* and over 4 million vehicles registered for use on New Zealand roads**. Recent statistical studies quibble over whether NZ has the 2nd or 3rd highest per capita car ownership figures in the world. Either way, those figures paint a picture of a country that is deeply reliant on the car. We plan to explore the reasons for this here over the next months, so I won’t expand on this point here and now, other than to note that we’re planning to do something which is culturally unusual here.

*Statistics New Zealand, Tatauranga Aotearoa

**NZ Transport Agency, Waka Kotahi. This includes all types of vehicles registered for use on the roads in NZ.