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Why I turned down two free cars

Driving in London sometimes makes sense. Owning a car there is madness

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

On two occasions, sainted members of my family have offered me a car for nothing. Both times, I turned them down — and not out of selflessness or for green reasons.

I said no because I knew it would mean me sitting still in a metal box for hundreds more hours every year. If I were the only driver in London, I’d have accepted the free cars in a second. Even if I could have been transported back to 1970s London — when in my memory the streets were largely empty — I’d have said yes.

But driving in London — and in British cities, generally — has now got so popular that it’s become a victim of its own success. If Top Gear or The Grand Tour were really honest, they wouldn’t show Jeremy Clarkson racing a squadron of jets through the California desert. They would film him sitting stationary on the M40, stranded halfway between his Holland Park flat and his Chipping Norton house.


As recently as 2012, the average speed on London’s streets was 19.33 mph, falling to 8.98 mph in central London. This year, those figures have dropped to 16.5 mph in London as a whole and 7.4 mph in the centre. At those levels, I can get anywhere in central London quicker on my bike. A recent study showed there are even clogged sections on the M25 where a bike would be quicker than a car.

Oh, the joys of not driving! Or, to be more precise, the joys of not owning a car. There’s a huge difference between not being able to drive and not owning a car. Not being able to drive leaves you trapped, and dependent on the mercy of qualified drivers. Trapped and dependent during the villa holiday; trapped and dependent during the country weekend; trapped and dependent when you need to cart an old sofa to the dump.

But the internet has perfected the life of the driver who doesn’t own a car. With Zipcar you can hire a car for £3 an hour, plus a £59.50 annual fee. Car rental comparison sites have brought the price of longer-term hire right down. Suddenly you are exposed to as many cars as Jeremy Clarkson, all lovingly cleaned and vacuumed every time you pick one up. In the 18 years since I regularly drove the same car around London, I have driven about 200 new, or nearly new, cars around Britain — and never bought one.

Goodbye to depreciation, MOTs, road tax, washing the car, and the resident’s parking permit. Goodbye, too, to the huge initial outlay on those big metal boxes that spend most of their lives sitting inertly outside your front door — when they’re not sitting inertly on the M40.

You save so much money by not owning a car that you can splash out like crazy on cabs — themselves much cheaper since the arrival of Uber. Goodbye to worries about drink-driving.

The less you drive, the more pleasurable it becomes. Book your car-share for the right time — between midnight and 8 a.m. at the weekend; any time on Christmas Day — and Britain becomes that mythical dreamland seen only in car adverts, where you are the only driver in the world.


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