Sixteen years (without driving)

A vintage Delage car with the number 116 painted on the side
A car I have not driven. Lovely, though, isn’t it?

Today it is sixteen years since I last drove a car on the road.

That wasn’t deliberate. I only remember the date because it was the day before my graduation, and how could I forget that such an occasion happened on quatorze juillet? I failed my second driving test the day before I graduated, therefore I must have driven for the last time on the thirteenth of July. (In actual fact, I drove a Routemaster around a field a couple of months later, but that’s another story.)

I hadn’t meant that to be the last time I took my driving test. But I was moving out of the city where I’d learned to drive, and that meant that for the next test I’d have to learn a whole new set of test routes. And I’d just graduated and I didn’t have a job, and I never got round to sorting out lessons. My grand plan that year was to walk to Santiago de Compostela, and I didn’t need a car to do that. Then I spent two months in Germany and was thoroughly spoiled by the public transport system.

At the end of all that, seventeen months after failing my second driving test, I moved to Guildford. This is a notoriously expensive place to live and, even though I was living in a horrible bedsit, and even though I signed up with a temp agency fairly promptly, I didn’t have the money to spare for driving lessons.

I moved in with my fiancé. He had a car. I never drove it, though. I think I probably assumed that I would, sooner or later, but money was still tight. He was a PhD student and I was a temp, and we were living in Guildford.

I inherited a car from my godmother, but I swapped it for a piano. (The piano was left to my mother, but she already had one. The car ended up with my father, I think.) I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t play the piano, either.

We moved to Woking, which was marginally cheaper than Guildford, where I was still working. We managed to move everything except the piano in (or, in the case of the double bed, on) the car. Not long after that move, Tony started a different PhD. In London.

Nobody drives into London. Not without a very good reason – disability, say, or actually living there. We did not have a very good reason to drive into London. In fact, we had no good reason to drive at all. I could take the train to Guildford. Tony could take the train to London. We could go pretty much anywhere else we fancied by train, because Woking, while not terribly interesting in itself (unless you’re a Martian invader), is very well-connected. And the car was sitting on the road costing us £600 a year before we’d even put fuel in.

The car went to a couple of affable blokes from somewhere in Wales. Looking back, that was probably the moment that confirmed my non-driving path. Up until then, driving occupied a slot in the ‘get around to it some day’ filing cabinet in my head. If I ever needed to, I’d told myself before, I’d learn to drive. Now I had to ask myself: but what? Tony could, and did, hire a car if he wanted to go somewhere off the public transport network. That wouldn’t have worked for me, because I didn’t have the familiarity with driving that would let me leap into a strange car and go somewhere safely, and now we didn’t have a car I wasn’t going to get it.

We adjusted very smoothly to life without a car. We walked to the shops. We commuted to work by train. We visited family by train. We started getting a veg box delivered. I bought a trike and started cycling. Tony had been cycling for years. We didn’t need a car. Not in Woking, anyway. It would have been a different story in the place where I grew up (a mile to the nearest village).

Not being able to drive might have been career limiting, but I was never terribly interested in the career track that would have required it. (A decade older and a billion times more confident, I think now that I wouldn’t have made a bad stab at it, but I don’t think it would ever have been my ideal future.) That problem disappeared when I moved to my employer’s head office and a job where nobody expected me to drive.

If we didn’t need a car in Woking, we certainly didn’t need one in Cambridge. (That move involved six months in separate temporary addresses, and Tony moved all the furniture except the piano in a hired van.) It is only slightly more advisable to drive into Cambridge than it is to drive into London. And I told myself that if I didn’t start riding a standard, two-wheeled, bike in Cambridge, I’d never do it at all. I did. Suddenly I could get to everything I needed to.

Life works perfectly well for me without driving. Of course, that’s because I’ve managed – first by luck, and later by design – to set it up that way. If I were still in a tiny hamlet in the Marches, I think I’d probably have to drive, or else get used to a very limited existence. As things are, we choose places to live based on walking and cycling distance from the amenities, and we are fortunate enough for that to be financially and logistically feasible.

More recently, I’ve developed intermittent vision loss (very occasional, but inconvenient in its very unpredictability) which makes me wonder whether I’d actually be safe behind a steering wheel. I don’t much like the thought of being suddenly unable to see out of my right eye while bowling down a motorway. Though I’ve heard of someone with the same thing who just pulls over when he notices it coming on.

Not driving does make it harder to visit other people. I have friends whose house I can see from my morning train, yes, but I have family in villages where the bus comes twice a week, or never. There is no point in our getting a National Trust membership, because the great and the good tended to build their stately piles a long way from anything so plebeian as public transport. And I might have been on a retreat in the last decade if so many retreat houses were not buried deep in the countryside with no bus service. (To be fair, the last retreat I went on was a five minute taxi ride from Godalming station, so it may also be that I just haven’t got around to it.)

I fret a lot about Putting People Out. Usually they are lovely and think nothing of going five miles out of their way to get me home. It turns out that five miles isn’t all that far, in a car. Or, in the case of my husband, hiring a car. Of course it does get awkward sometimes, if I’m very tired and would rather be by myself on a nice quiet train. More often, though, I get to know them a lot better, and, as someone to whom socialising doesn’t come naturally, that’s very valuable.

Of course, the longer my not driving goes on, the more it becomes about the environment. I came across The Jump a few months ago, and found it a lot more encouraging and less annoying than a lot of climate rhetoric. It identifies six broad ‘jumps’ (lifestyle changes, I suppose you could call them), one of which is ‘get rid of your personal vehicle’, but is very reassuring about not expecting perfection. Well, the cars we hire these days are electric, and if we ever do buy one (and my eye stops playing up and I learn to drive) it’ll be electric, but there’ll still be cobalt in the battery and rubber particulate to fret about. I fret less these days – or, rather, I have a more realistic sense of my own ability to effect large-scale change and consequently a more realistic sense of my own responsibility – but, having accidentally forged a lifestyle in which I don’t drive and don’t have to, it seems a bit silly not to keep it going.

And it’s gone on a long time. Next year my existence as a non driver will be old enough to drive.