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The Road Not Taken
A man reflects on growing up without a car, a trend that's gaining popularity with today's youth.

Part of OnEarth's Answers from the Past month, in which our contributors explore how contemporary thinking on sustainability has been influenced by wisdom handed down to us from previous generations. Read more here.

We weren’t exactly dirt-poor when I was growing up, not church-mouse poor, not poor like the four Yorkshiremen in the classic Monty Python sketch. (“You lived in a hole in the ground covered by a sheet of tarpaulin? You were lucky.”) But we were poor nonetheless. On Saturdays, as a treat, my father would bring home a Mars Bar and cut it into six equal slices, two for each of us.

And we didn’t have a car. Although, just to put that in perspective, in those far-off days in the small mining towns in Scotland’s central coal belt, almost no one did. In fact, the scarcity of cars, and the sense that going out in one constituted a special occasion, an adventure rather than a functional necessity, gave me some of the happiest hours of my childhood.

Between them, my parents had seven siblings, and they accounted for a total of two cars. There was one on each side of the family—one in Scotland and one in England, my mother’s birthplace. In Scotland, my Uncle Bill, a kindly man who walked with a pronounced limp, had a Wolseley 6-90. Married to my father’s sister, he was the only member of the family to have any money. The measure of financial success otherwise was that you died with enough in the bank to cover your funeral expenses. Uncle Bill ran a modestly successful electrical store in a nearby town, and the 6-90, a model produced in the late 1950s, with leather-trimmed seats and a formica instrument panel, was as stolid and middle-class as Uncle Bill himself.

More in the series: Answers from the Past

Down in London, my Uncle Harry, a vain and difficult man who suffered badly from PTSD after his experiences as a prisoner of war in Burma, owned an Invicta. This was a much flashier affair than Uncle Bill’s Wolseley, with grooved running boards and headlamps on raised stalks, like a knock-off of James Bond’s 1933 Bentley. I’m sure Uncle Harry, who had frustrated dreams of upward mobility, must have gone into hock to buy it. But going for a drive in the Invicta was a kid’s fantasy. My uncle belonged to the Royal Automobile Club, and in those days the organization employed fleets of patrolmen who prowled the roads looking for members in difficulties. They rode motorcycles with sidecars and wore peaked caps and aviator goggles and leather gloves flared to the elbow, and when they saw the distinctive enameled RCA plaque on the front bumper, blue and silver and topped with a crown, they would snap off a military salute. Uncle Harry snapped one back and glowed at this proof of his standing.

The rare joy of riding in those cars! We saw each uncle once or twice a year, and there was always a day when they took us motoring. That was the word people used in those days. Cars were something you took out on aimless drives along winding, almost empty roads. You’d end up having an impromptu picnic on some hillside in the Highlands, or in an open field on the Surrey Downs, and sometimes the snacks would include a famous chocolate bar that had been created to celebrate the pleasure and adventure of taking to the open road—Fry’s Milk Motoring.

At all other times there were buses. On weekends, Alexander’s, the local bus company in my hometown, ran “mystery tours.” (See the Beatles’ awful 1967 movie, Magical Mystery Tour, and you’ll get a general idea of how these worked.) My parents would hand over a few shillings, we’d take our seats, and off we’d go—with what destination nobody but the driver knew, though it was never more than five or ten miles away. You could say our world was narrow—and the last thing I want to do is to idealize poverty, which is generally a wretched business. But experiencing the world within such restricted geographical confines there were all sorts of small miracles to discover. On one occasion we stopped to pick mushrooms that grew in a fairy circle in a farmer’s field and were chased over the drystone wall by an enraged bull. We saw ruined castles and medieval monasteries just a few miles from the filth of the coal mines. We chanced upon colonies of seals splashing around on the rocks in the cold, gray waters of the North Sea. We came to an intimate knowledge of our wild backyard, the edgelands between the natural world and the blasted landscape of the mines.

The scarcity of cars, and the sense that going out in one constituted a special occasion, an adventure rather than a functional necessity, gave me some of the happiest hours of my childhood.

But most of the time there were no wheels at all. My friends and I walked and ran and explored on foot. On the far side of the railroad tracks that ran through a deep cutting below my house, we poked around the swampy country above old, abandoned mine workings. In wintertime it was often blanketed by dank, brown coal fogs, and it could be a perilous place, dotted with flooded subsistence pits where old mineshafts had collapsed. My classmate Tom Pride died there, drowned at the age of eight or nine. But in summertime it was a riot of wildflowers and sweet wild strawberries no bigger than your pinkie nail.

In a nearby patch of trees we called Witches Wood, we picked succulent blueberries (or blaeberries, as the Scots call them). The trees are gone now, eaten up by new housing for the Edinburgh commuter belt, and I doubt they ever covered more than a couple of acres, but to us as kids they formed a kind of Hansel and Gretel forest filled with hiding places and wondrous finds. At nightfall, we’d return home in time for dinner, bruised and scratched, filthy as chimney sweeps, and sublimely happy.

It was as a young adult, after the family moved to London, that cars entered my life in a serious way. I owned a whole string of them. The first ones were clapped-out wrecks, and I became adept at scavenging scrap yards and figured out how to do basic repairs, replacing a starter motor or brake linings, once even a head gasket. Later there were pretentious French imports, Renaults and Citroens, but when they broke down—which tended to happen out in the middle of nowhere as I was trying to impress a girlfriend with my sophisticated tastes—the spare parts were impossibly expensive. And what I mainly remember about these cars are the torn, bleeding knuckles from my amateur repairs, the impossible London traffic, and getting lost in the city’s labyrinth of one-way streets that had been laid out in the pre-automobile age. Cars brought as much misery as pleasure.

For the past 30 years, living now in Manhattan, I’ve been carless. I don’t want to be disingenuous here: I relish the freedom of movement a car provides as much as anyone, and I enjoy the physical act of driving. But I don’t indulge these pleasures very often, saving them for journeys where there is no feasible alternative, or for exploring wild country in the mountain West on back roads that are as empty as the roads I remember from childhood. And—full disclosure—I’ve even been known to rent an SUV on occasion, if those back roads are in particularly rough shape. But enjoyed sparingly, driving can feel like motoring again, and driving the Avis rental can evoke the same liberating thrill as Uncle Harry’s Invicta.

Living in a city like New York that was designed for walking and has efficient public transportation, why would anyone want to own a car? Parking and insurance alone would cost more each year than I’ve ever spent on rentals. Walking along Mayor Bloomberg’s new bike paths by the edge of the Hudson River at night, looking northward at the fairy lights of the George Washington Bridge (toll: $12), I catch echoes of that childhood sense of wonder at the beauty that lies right under our noses. Nearby, the traffic crawls along the Henry Hudson Parkway, oblivious to it.

My own kids are grown now. My son is 24; my daughter 22. Neither of them owns a car; in fact, neither has learned to drive. It’s a growing trend among their generation. Forty or fifty years ago cars were anthemic for teenagers and twenty-somethings. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes BenzShe’ll have fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes her T-Bird away. Now, at least for city kids, they’re more of a hassle than a symbol of status, adulthood, and sexual freedom. Recent studies show that vehicle miles traveled by Americans have declined for eight years in succession.

My kids do chafe a bit about this sometimes, because, yes, there will be times when life is difficult without a license. But their everyday movements are charted by public transportation. Their young adult lives have bounced them around from Boston to Brooklyn, interspersed with short spells of living at home again. The nearest subway stop has never been more than a few blocks from their front doors. They know their backyards intimately, much as I did when I was kid. Carless, they’re approaching the future by stepping back, at least for now, into some of the pleasures of the past.

Read more of OnEarth's Answers from the Past month.

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OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exploration of Yellowstone and was published in March 2012. Buy it here. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (3)
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What a great story with romantic echoes of your childhood. Yes, walking or cycling really does allow you to appreciate your surroundings like those fairy lights on the GW bridge! I lived in NYC for three years and miss that part of New York City living. At age 19, I traveled from Tokyo to the southwestern most tip of the country in search of a master potter and later studied at Sophia University--all without ever stepping foot in a car. The one time I traveled by car was with a family traveling to their vacation home near Mt. Fuji. We crept along the highway on congested roads and hit gridlock multiple times. Riding the train would have gotten us there in a fraction of the time. In 1990, I moved to Kyoto with my then husband and three young children. We received commuter bikes from Ritsumeikan University, where I worked, our only mode of transportation for four years. For two years, I commuted a mile to work, dropping off my son at nursery school at the base of Kinugasa Mountain rain or shine before coasting down the hill to my office. Like you in your childhood, I got to know the neighborhood intimately, and felt like part of a vibrant community. --Johanna Knapschaefer, freelance writer on Boston's North Shore
Too bad Houston is such a hot, car-inflamed, dangerous and polluted city for cyclists. We don't have true bicycle lanes, so riders have to operate in a constant contest with automobiles.
'Tell me about it! Its a lot worse in cities and towns in The Indian Subcontinent where I live,but its even more fun to walk and ride a bike where there are no footpaths(let alone bicycle lanes).Well, a sort of fun! :) Saqib from Lahore,Pakistan