Jocelyn Newmarch
Jocelyn Newmarch

Why I’m not buying a car

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been walking to work. This is a radical move in Jo’burg, where one routinely drives to the neighbourhood convenience store for a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread, and where the new suburbs are designed on the assumption that you live in your car, going home only to sleep. I don’t walk far — only about 2km — and it’s a leisurely 25 minutes, which I spend looking at people’s gardens and getting my thoughts in order for the day. Yet people are horrified. Walking has become a subversive activity, for the middle class at least.

However, I won’t be able to walk for much longer. We’re moving next year, and my 2km stroll will become a 5km commute. I don’t like the idea of running to work, since there’s no shower and my sweaty self would offend my colleagues, and walking would take too long. The obvious solution is to buy a car. I don’t like that solution. Despite the hassle involved in obtaining a new licence, I’m keen to buy a scooter. Electric, if possible, though it seems petrol scooters still perform better.

It was the December petrol-price increase that did it. Petrol now costs as much as R7,40 in Gauteng, the highest price yet. I read the annoucement and coolly decided that I wanted no part of it. Petrol is set to rise even further as the world runs out of oil, and despite the rush to biofuels, which are not able to provide sufficient fuel security. Petrol, in short, is obsolete, as is the technology built on it.

The problem is clean technology hasn’t yet taken over. Sure, it’s there, but most of us can’t afford a Toyota Prius. Besides, car driving merely perpetuates the cycle of decentralised cities, inadequate public transport, long commute times and traffic jams. I thought about getting a bicycle, but I refuse to ride it at night (a problem for short winter days), which would put myself at the mercy of muggers and rapists. So with all that in mind, I’ve decided to get a scooter, which, even if petrol driven, is vastly more fuel-efficient.

And I’ve heard the arguments about how cars never see scooters or cyclists, how scooters and motorbikes offer less protection, and how I’ll be risking my life on the roads. I’ll be using back roads most of the time, but I acknowledge the possibility of an accident remains high.

But every time we buy a car, even if it’s for pragmatic, rational reasons, we’re adding to the problem. We’re taking pressure off the government to fix our inadequate public transport system, we’re allowing our cities to sprawl even further, we’re contributing to global warming, we’re adding to our own obesity epidemic with inadequate exercise and fast food, and we’re becoming ever more divorced from our own public spaces.

Of course it’s a difficult choice. I only have space to make it because between the two of us, we already have one car that can be used for the times when a car trip is inevitable. But I want to build a society where a car is an optional extra, not the must-have accessory of the middle class. And if I don’t start building that society, who will?

I’m dreaming of a society where the streets belong to pedestrians first and motorists last. Where streets are safe public spaces and walking is no longer a sign of poverty.