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The flip side of the freedom of not having a car

Walking.

Walking, and waiting. I do a lot of both now.

Tonight, in the autumn cold, I sit on a bench on wharf 5. It rocks almost imperceptibly on the inky waters of Sydney Cove. The next ferry is forty minutes away; I fed my ticket into the turnstile just in time to see the 8.30 service reversing into the night. Serves me right for pausing in front of an art gallery on the way back from the cinemas to admire a particularly intriguing piece of Aboriginal art.

This is the flip side of the freedom of not having a car. Gone are the onerous payments and ruinous petrol bills, but so too is the sheer convenience of being able to choose where and when you want to be. It just takes so damn long to get anywhere when you don’t have a car, something with which many South Africans who get around on foot and by taxi know only too well.

When I want to go to a big shopping centre, for instance, I catch a ferry to Circular Quay, then wait for a bus to Bondi Junction, before repeating the same sequence in reverse. It takes more than an hour either way, so a shopping trip is now something I need to budget half a day for. Compare that to a ten minute drive to Sandton City.

This takes some getting used to. Growing up middle class and white in South Africa, having the use of a car was both a rite of passage and something that just…happened. Not having a car was unthinkable. In my first year at Wits, I caught the Putco bus home, though when there were rehearsals that ended late at night, my mother would drive out to fetch me, our German Shepherd* accompanying her to ward off hijackers. Once I got my licence (fifth time lucky…long story), I never had to worry about public transport again.

Until now. Sydney’s transport system functions reasonably well — certainly compared to the one in Joburg, where commuters frequently take their lives in their hands. It’s not perfect by any means — a couple of weeks ago, a chef named Michael Hart became a local celebrity when he told the acting chief executive of the local train operator “Up yours” because he was sick of persistant overcrowding and unreliability — but for the most part it’s safe and clean. So I am happy to use it, and I’ll adjust my lifestyle to accommodate all the walking and waiting.

The debate about cars versus public transport is one that will continue to vex authorities around the world for the forseeable future. Since private motorists contribute both to congestion and pollution, everyone wants to keep them off the roads. But until somebody figures out how to make public transport more convenient — or cars less so** — this is not a problem that will be solved.

* The dog, of course. Not a sinewy old man named Hans.
** The rise in petrol prices is driving motorists off the road and into trains and buses, overloading the system, but that’s a subject for another post.

Author

  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.