I grew up in Johannesburg, which is quite a big city, about 10 million inhabitants, and also very spread out, roughly 60km in diameter. Coming as they did from London, my parents sought to purchase their first house in close proximity to a train station, but the trains turned out to be a bit too dangerous, what with all the muggings and stabbings, and they soon both purchased cars. As a child I rode my bicycle around the suburb, but to get just about anywhere else we drove. I spent a lot of time getting motion sickness in the back seat of a car.
When I turned 18 I passed my driver’s license and I purchased my first car. Over a period of five years I drove 150,000kms, the equivalent of nearly four laps around the Earth, mostly just doodling around Johannesburg. I estimate that I burnt about 10,000 litres of petrol, releasing 24 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. I had a number of accidents, including two collisions and one roll finishing upside-down in a ditch. Luckily, I was unhurt, but I was deeply imprinted with the danger of cars. What I hated most about driving was being stuck in traffic. Most cars in South Africa have manual transmissions, and I would get pains in my leg from working the clutch in hours of stop-start traffic. Sustained road building and road widening projects did nothing to alleviate the problem, indeed each year I remarked that the problem was getting worse. I arranged to arrive at work after rush hour and stayed late. Ultimately, at great expense, I rented an apartment just down the road from my place of employment.
Stuck in a sea of cars, I began to think about alternatives. I came across the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) proposal, which struck me as interesting. Elevated guideways, no risk of accidents, no traffic jams, quick and convenient, it seemed to fit the bill. I put that aside, sold my car and moved to greener pastures in Ireland.
When I moved to Europe I decided not to purchase another car. In Dublin I mostly got around on my own two feet, which was wonderfully refreshing. Dublin has a compact highly-walkable city centre where I spent most of my time drinking ale and as a result putting on a lot of weight. I used the train occasionally to visit my family who lived outside of town.
I became interested in the Carfree movement, and I also attended the Towards Carfree Cities III conference. I was especially admirative of the works of J.H. Crawford, notably his books Carfree Cities and Carfree Design Manual. I began to realize that the solution to urban mobility lay as much in changing transportation modes as it did in changing contemporary urban planning. I hung out on the Carfree mailing list for a while, but the groupthink began to affect me negatively so I unsubscribed.
In Paris I used the metro (subway) for a while, a very comprehensive but rather decrepit system. Ultimately, the overcrowding got to me, so I bought a bicycle instead. Riding my bicycle around town made me feel like a kid again. I especially enjoyed the thrill of cycling under the Tour Eiffel, although I avoided the Arc de Triomphe because that intersection scared the hell out of me. The cycling infrastructure in Paris at the time was not great, but it was good enough.
In Avignon I had a 30km return cycle to work each day, which after several months began to wear me down. For a while I would put my bicycle in the train and then cycle the remainder, which was alright when the trains worked, but too often there were strikes or breakdowns and my train would never arrive. When my bicycle was stolen, I decided to purchase a scooter as a replacement. The cycling infrastructure in Avignon was abysmal and as very few people rode bicycles I felt quite alone on the mean roads. Although the scooter was certainly more dangerous, at least I could outrun the cars and get to work in no time without breaking a sweat. In the city centre I used to walk, which was fine because it is quite small and I adored the charming winding streets. My only wish was that cars of non-residents would be banned from entering the old town, because they’re really wasn’t much space and at times I had to squeeze myself against the wall to allow motorists past.
During my time in Avignon I had the privilege of developing a public transit management software application which was deployed in a number of smaller towns and departments around France. I came into contact with the people running public transit infrastructure, and I must say, they simply are not the best and brightest. There is no prestige in working in public transit, at least not in France. France does has a comprehensive public transit system, but outside of the high speed trains (TGV) the users are mainly what I refer to as the unwashed masses: those too young or too old to drive, those who can’t drive because of disabilities, and those who don’t drive because they simply can’t afford to. And then there’s me, the only crazy who doesn’t drive because he’s against cars. There is little political will to further improve the system. Information, such as system maps and timetables can often be difficult to find, difficult to understand, somewhat contradictory or simply out of date. As a first time user you really need to have your wits about you.
I continued riding my scooter in Marseille. Although traffic was bad, I could always worm my way through the lines of stationary cars, and I could park anywhere. In Marseille I had my only scooter accident, ironically it was because of my helmet. You see, as I was gently cruising down the old port with the lovely Alison hugging my waist, a sudden gust of wind swept under my visor and yanked my poorly secured helmet backwards. I was being strangled by the strap, and as I let go of the handlebars to redress the helmet the car in front of me suddenly braked hard without reason nor warning. I braked hard with the one remaining hand, but as only the front wheel was slowing down, the back slipped out and we were dragged along the tarmac. Alison’s leg was badly grazed from heel to toe, although I fared better as I was wearing a pair of trousers. A kind sailor disembarked from his sailboat and offered us both a shot of whiskey to right our nerves. Not a proud moment.
When I moved to Montpellier I found a job in the city centre, so I got rid of the scooter and bought a new bicycle. The cycling infrastructure is patchy, but it is moderately good, certainly compared to any other French city I’ve lived in. Each year I saw more adults on bicycles which gave me hope. I still put up with a lot of abuse from motorists, but I tried not to let it get to me. One peddle press at a time. Montpellier has a very comprehensive and very pretty tramway system, which I admired but never used because I could get everywhere I needed to on my bicycle faster and cheaper. I experimented for a while in a short-term car rental scheme called Modulauto, where a fleet of vehicles are parked around the city which can be reserved online for a number of hours. I found it occasionally useful, especially when I needed to transport something bulky or heavy, but I found the service to be too expensive and I kept incurring penalties for overrunning the initial reservation time, so I cancelled my membership.
Recently, I have been toying with the idea of buying a sailboat. I quite like the idea of harnessing the wind as a means of mobility.