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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?

If there is one place you don’t want a cab driver to announce ‘Taxi for Lock’, it’s in a room full of delegates venting about gas-guzzling motor vehicles.

This was my dilemma last week, when I had to get from the Towards Carfree Cities IX conference at York’s Priory Street Centre to an interview with the Climate Change Minister, Chris Huhne, on the other side of town.

Chris Huhne

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne during a visit to Solarwall, in Clifton, York

I would have hopped on my bike, but I’ve been ill and I wasn’t up to it. Neither was the venue close to a convenient regular bus service. This is a typical problem I’ve had since giving up our car – public transport is, frequently, pants – so I seized the moment (they were discussing car-sharing), and the microphone, and asked, ‘Can anyone give me a lift?’

There was an embarrassed silence and, unsurprisingly, no takers. Compost John did offer to take me on the crossbar of his bike, which was kind but not practical, even if the image of me bowling up to the minister like a street kid in a sun-dress did appeal.

In the end, I legged it to the station and slunk into a cab, compounding my carbon emissions (and my guilt) by getting another taxi home. This got stuck in a massive tailback and we sat there, spewing out pollution, while fit-looking cyclists whizzed past us and I contemplated the happy day when York does, eventually, become car-free.

What, you didn’t see this option in the council’s latest traffic consultation exercise? That’ll teach you for being in the 90 per cent that throws those surveys in the bin (I do hope you recycle them, at any rate). OK, so it wasn’t actually listed as an option for LTP3, but having listened to the urban planners and transport specialists from around the world at the conference this week, I’m convinced that, one day, it could be.

Professor John Whitelegg, a keynote speaker, said in his address on Tuesday, ‘There’s an enormous missed opportunity in York. It could easily be car-free within the city walls.’ He pointed to exciting developments in cities such as Berlin, Basel, Freiburg and Copenhagen and said that urban space could be ‘radically re-engineered at relatively little cost’ to produce ‘human-scale, people-centred environments with a massive improvement in quality of life.’

It sounds good to me, though I realise the mere mention of doing away with cars is deeply provocative to some. But if York wants to realise its stated ambitions of becoming ‘a leading environmentally friendly city’ and ‘an exemplar low-emissions city’ – as opposed to a congested and polluted city with air quality so poor that it’s killing three people a week – then it has to do something bold. The fine words have been going on for long enough.

As Professor Whitelegg said, it’s time to start buttering parsnips.

My emissions-per-quote ratio didn’t work out too well with Chris Huhne, who had come to Solarwall’s Energy Centre in Clifton to announce that the Government was going to get more homes insulated, paving the way for a new Green Deal to come.

I only had five minutes with the Climate Change Minister, so I asked him what this would mean for York residents like me living in Victorian terraced houses that don’t benefit from existing deals. He said there would be ‘extras’ available for pre-1930s housing, such as solid wall insulation, which could be installed with no upfront costs, the repayment coming from a charge on a home’s energy meter, offset by savings on fuel bills.

Fine as far as it goes, but since the environment barely rated a mention in the budget, this ‘greenest Government ever’ will have to do much more to convince that it’s taking positive action on climate change, rather than simply letting poverty reduce emissions by default.

Fortunately, the team of young people I helped to mentor (with Andy Chase) through a Dragon’s Den-style challenge last weekend restored my hopes.  The students – bright sparks from both independent and state schools in York – were given the brief to come up with an idea ‘to make York fit for the future’.

Our team came up with an idea for an organisation to promote food growing in all York schools that had our ‘Dragons’ slavering (in a good way). Congratulations to Xavier, Simon, Peter and Ed from Bootham, Canon Lee and Fulford schools respectively on being made joint winners.

A future that involves growing parsnips and buttering them. Now that’s just what York needs.


May 2022

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