In 1885 Karl Benz constructed the first automobile.
It had three wheels, like an invalid car,
And ran on alcohol, like many drivers.
Since then about seventeen million people have been killed by them
In an undeclared war;
And the whole of the rest of the world is in danger of being run over
Due to squabbles about their oil.
When you turn seventeen in Britain, you take driving lessons. Well, almost everyone does. It’s not quite as universal as in the US, when it’s part of the school’s responsibility, but it’s pretty close anyway. Anyway, I took lessons too.
The problem was, I was never any good at it. The very reason I was meant to learn - the fact I lived in rural Suffolk - made it a pain. Thirty plus minutes to the town where I had to take the test, an hour of lesson, then the remaining time home, and it felt like I’d barely learnt anything. It required a certain amount of physical co-ordination, and I didn’t have it. I had some weird ticks, like using the noise of the car to guage speed - which bit me when I drove one without a huge advertising triangle on the top.
Then I saw Autogeddon, a BBC production of the poem by Heathcote Williams - “the most vigorous sustained flow of invective against car culture to date.” I thought about how selfish cars were. I thought about how I was heading to university, and probably living in cities. I worried about the cost of all my damned lessons. I couldn’t afford a car anyway. I stopped learning to drive.
For ten years, I lived in London. During that time, except for visits to my parents, I was in a car perhaps once or twice a year. That includes taxis. They’re expensive, especially once you move out to the fringes of zone 3, and anyway, if I stayed out very late, which was rare, there were night buses.
Of course, during the week, I never needed to drive, and it was folly to do so; £5 a time into the congestion charge zone, parking so expensive only bankers did it, and either the tube or cycling was faster, anyway. Oh, don’t forget the maze of one way streets - it’s one thing to learn your way as a pedestrian, but another to memorise all of that nonsense on top. Driving was for suckers. Rich suckers. I was neither.
At the weekends, well, maybe being able to drive would have been nice. Still, London’s commuter railways work the other way, too. Want to walk in the Chilterns, the North or South Downs, along the Kent or Sussex coasts, take a day trip to Southend or Walton? You can do that. It’ll take a while, but then, so does hacking around the bloody M25. It was rare for me to even consider thinking about it. Anyway, London’s got so much going on, why the hell would you want to leave?
In ten years, I don’t remember anyone being surprised that I never bothered to learn. Half the people I meet didn’t, either. It’s a choice, like not drinking.
America is a car country. There are more cars than licenced drivers. There aren’t that far off as many cars as people, full stop. Nationally, only 8% of households do not have a car. The freeways are wide and flowing, and the journey is as much fun as the arrival. I know of friends who, as students, would just drive around late at night as relaxation, as a place of their own. The US loves freedom, and the car is a physical, and personal, manifestation of that freedom.
I now live in San Francisco. In six months, I can remember more than a few people being shocked to learn that I don’t - can’t - drive. It’s almost as if not having that skill means I’m not a functional adult human being.
Still, so long as you work in the city, you can commute to work without a car. It’s slower than driving, but cheaper; parking is, by the standards of the rest of the country, absurdly expensive and hard to find. If you work in the rest of the Bay Area, though, it’s hit and miss. Oakland’s OK; if you’re close to Caltrain’s line it’s doable. Otherwise? If you’re lucky you’re on a company bus. If you’re not, you’ve no choice but driving down 101 or 280. It’s a good thing I work in the city.
As for weekends, well, the best thing about San Francisco, I keep being told, is that it’s surrounded by wonderful countryside. There’s Muir Woods, Santa Cruz, Yosemite, and a list of others. To get there, there’s the roads; I-80 to Tahoe, I-280 down the spine of the mountains, and above all, there’s Highway 1 - the Pacific Coast drive, the scenic bends and swoops on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s not as fast as I-5, especially if you want to get all the way to LA, but for a weekend jaunt, it’s perfect.
But. I’m a pedestrian. (I’m probably a militant pedestrian, but someone has to be.) I like being able to see the magic. Yet I overhear in a café someone who’s just started driving say that without the ability you’re a prisoner, and I see online that I can’t be a photographer without a car. I can’t go for a country walk without getting a friend to drive me to the country. So for the first time in twenty years, I feel the pressure to learn to drive. I hate it.