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‘Did I hear you say you were foot passengers?’ The man sitting next to me on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from the Isle of Arran to Ardrossan regarded my rucksack-laden family. ‘How did you get here?’

By train, I told him.

‘I suppose you hired a car when you got to Arran,’ he said. It wasn’t a question.

‘No, we used buses,’ I shouted, over a chorus of car alarms from the decks below.

‘Did that work?’ he asked, clearly sceptical.

‘It was brilliant,’ I said. ‘Sustainable travel. It’s the best way to do it.’

He muttered something about getting a coffee and did not return. Pity. I’d only just got started.

We took buses every day in Arran, and it came to a quarter of the cost of hiring a car. It was much more relaxing than having to drive and the views, which you don’t appreciate when you’ve got your eyes glued to the road, were stunning. The trip around the north of the island was the best: a scenic rollercoaster ride with several stomach-plunging moments, at which I held my arms in the air and cried ‘Woo’, to the extreme embarrassment of the daughter.

You can, of course, hire bikes if you’ve got thighs of steel. However, we weren’t up to puffing up mountains and the advantage of the buses was that they would drop off and pick up even if you weren’t at a designated bus stop. This was a novelty to townies like us, but it was explained that it was all part of the ‘Arran way’.

We came to be very grateful for Arran’s support network on the one occasion that we could have done with a car. The daughter fell quite seriously ill on our first day and had to be taken to hospital in Lamlash by the island’s only ambulance. By the time she was fit to be discharged it was late in the evening, the buses had stopped running and regular taxi services had ceased.

The hospital called up a driver, who made a special trip out to get us. He gave the daughter some gamekeeper’s lore for avoiding heatstroke in the future and told us that helping each other out was the Arran way. It certainly was. Everybody from the paramedics to the duty doctor was lovely. The nurse even made us poor wilting parents a pot of tea.

Aside from the dash to hospital, the rest of our car-free holiday went without a hitch. Ironically, we couldn’t have afforded to have a holiday at all if we hadn’t given up our car because it was the savings that we’ve made that paid for it.

A report, Towards a Zero Carbon Vision for UK Transport, just published by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, estimates that opting out of individual car ownership can save people as much as £4,000 a year. Not only does this have obvious benefits for individuals, but that money tends to go back into the local economy by increasing spending in nearby shops.

I can vouch for this. When we gave up the car we also gave up on doing big supermarket shops and we now get a vegebox delivered and buy locally. It has the advantage of preventing you buying more than you need and produces far less packaging and waste. Plus, we’re healthier for all the walking and cycling – fortunately, you don’t need buns of steel to cycle round York – which is another perk of going car-free.

There are disadvantages, of course. Lots of places aren’t accessible by public transport, so we’ve joined the City Car Club and car-share with people. Neither can you take off for a Sunday afternoon drive, should you feel like it.

To which I say, ‘why bother?’ As the August Bank Holiday weekend kicks off with more than 17 million motorists reportedly facing a ‘perfect storm’ of travel chaos and three-hour delays, I’m happy to stay at home. It may not be much comfort if you’re travelling today but according to the SEI report, ‘Traffic congestion and time wasted stuck in jams will be a thing of the past’ in a zero carbon transport future.

As I write this, an email has just popped into my inbox inviting me to buy a VIP hospitality package to Top Gear Live. ‘Sit back and experience a tyre-screeching performance … ‘

Look, we already had that with the ambulance ride. And on the switchback bus. Who needs cars, eh?


September 2010

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