I thought that getting woken up at 3.30am by a phonecall from a neighbour who had spotted two guys trying to break into our car for the third time this year was the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back. However, our 1996 Toyota was to make loud complaints the following afternoon, stubbornly refusing to move on the N81 in Tallaght. No amount of crying by the five year old and three year old children in the back could cajole this particular camel to go home. Three gardaí coming to assist it into a safe parking spot used up its last gasps. Later that evening, having finally made it home, relaxing with a glass of wine I heard myself wonder aloud to my husband whether we could actually do without the car for good.
Some might think that our family likes to do things the hard way. For example, though we live in West Dublin, we have allotments to grow our own vegetables. My husband likes to make our own sausages and charcuterie, we make all our own bread, use wine kits to make our wine and I’ve even been known to make some rather tasty cheese. But do we really need to go as far as living without a car? We decided to look into all the pros and cons.
Firstly, our car is so old it owes us nothing: it does, however, cost us quite enough. Looking at replacing it, even with only a slightly younger model would already add to our financial burden. What would be a viable alternative? In order to make an informed choice we looked at when we use the car. Like most families, we use it for shopping, visiting family, days out, and we also use it for camping holidays abroad. Unlike many, we do not need it for commuting – my husband has used electric bikes for his 20 mile round trip to work for years, and I work from home. We don’t use the car for school-runs.
Finding a solution to shopping is straightforward enough – online deliveries in bulk, occasional trips to local shops by bike with paniers and signing up with our local milkman take care of this. As already mentioned, we grow our vegetables and either freeze or can them.
Trips to family on the other side of the city may take a bit longer, but public transport makes it perfectly possible. The advent of Dublin Bus Real Time information and the Transport for Ireland website, coupled with the use of Leap Cards to keep the cost down makes our two-bus trip both easy for us and exciting for the children. Days out around the city are also thus taken care of, using family day rambler tickets – also available on Leap Cards – and the Dublin Bike Scheme when without the children.
How would I cope with short local trips to the library or swimming pool with both the children on my own though? This is where we started to get clever. In 2008, my husband instigated contact with Paul Gogarty to enquire about the possibility of setting up a tax-incentive for bike users in Ireland. Two questions were asked in the Dail of the late Brian Lenihan and then the idea was introduced in the next budget. Only now is my husband finally benefiting personally from the cycle to work scheme, purchasing a new Momentum electric bike from Greenaer, and thus leaving his old e-bike available for me to use. We already had bike seats for the children – now I can put the five year old on the back and the three year old on the Co-Rider seat in front of me. The motor means I’m still able to whizz along, even if it’s windy or up-hill. The children love it – the older one sings a particular cycling song she’s made up and the little one can point out every little thing he sees. Having calculated their weight and height, we should be able to travel like this until they can cycle themselves. If the weather’s wet, well, we can either change our mind, or take public transport. Or, if it’s a really necessary journey, we can take a taxi: as we won’t be paying car tax, insurance and maintenance, it won’t feel like an extravagance.
For days out as a family we can of course use both electric bikes. Using routes calculated through the Cyclestreets website, which shows a choice of routes across the whole of Ireland – quiet, fast or balanced – we can safely and enjoyably get to plenty of interesting destinations from our base in West Dublin. With the addition of a foldable bike trailer from Cyclesuperstore.ie we have even looked at an overnight camping trip by bike as far away as Virginia, Co. Cavan.
There will of course be times when using a car as a family is necessary. For those times, I have signed up as a member of Go-Car, the organisation which has a number of vehicles around Dublin and Cork cities available to members by the hour. My nearest pick-up point is one bus-ride away, though I hope in the future there will be one nearer. For the children, we have purchased Bubblebums, an inflatable booster seat certified as safe from age four, so for the three year old we will have to bring the traditional, larger car seat for a while yet.
There remains finding a solution to our preferred type of holiday – camping in France with our own gear. We looked at many options: shipping our gear in advance, buying a car for the summer months and selling it again, even ditching this type of holiday for good. Then, last December a solution fell into our laps with the introduction of the new ldlines ferry to St Nazaire. This port is at the start of a gorgeous cycle route: La Loire à Vélo. We have now booked to go at the end of June with our two bikes, two children and camping gear. We may only cycle a short bit and set up camp for two weeks at the beach; we may, if the weather is bad, board a train south or east. With the battery range of the Momentum electric bike from Greenaer up to 60miles before recharging, we could cycle as far as Saumur and revisit some favourite haunts of our honeymoon. To this end, I foresee purchasing a new electric bike for myself before the summer, as my inherited e-bike has a much shorter range after eight years.
We have now convinced ourselves that not only do we not need a car; even with keeping costs as low as they could possibly be we would be foolish to buy another one in our current circumstances and with all these solutions available to us. The relief alone of not worrying about a car being damaged by vandals outside our house is worth it. Instead of being daunted by the prospect of a new year with car loans and associated costs and worries, we are looking forward to a new phase in our lives: a car-free and carefree 2014.
Calculations of cost of present car fully paid for:
Insurance (3rd party) E400
Cost of upgrading to a newer car:
Add +/- E500 per year, ie a car for E1500, upgraded every three years. This is very conservative – E1000 per year would be more likely.
Cost of transport without a car for the family:
Hire car for longer periods E380
Train/Coach long distance E300
Bike maintenance (including new battery or charger) E250
Cost of new bike if necessary: E1500 or E300 per annum (Less of course if bought through the Cycle to Work scheme)
Single person example:
The original electric bike was a Giant Lafree, a quality bike that has lasted 8 years and 40 000 miles.
E1500 purchase + E2000 spent on it in 8 years (new batteries being the largest cost) = E3500
Motoring cost for 8 years = E25,000 plus perhaps 3 cars at E1500 makes at least = E30 000
Even with some additional train/coach and bus use added on to the car-free lifestyle, the difference is startling.
Plus we’re fitter!