‘I gave up on car ownership 15 years ago and I’ve never felt so smug’

Ulez sign and traffic
Ulez sign and traffic

I’m a 52-year-old driver who’s lived in London all my life. And yet I’ve never paid a single Ulez charge in the four years since it was introduced in 2019. That also applies to the extension over Greater London, imposed by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, in August.

How have I pulled off this magic trick? Well, 15 years ago, living in Kentish Town, north London, I got rid of my car.

I love driving – but on empty roads only. I’d grown tired of sitting in traffic for hours on end, watching my life – and lots of bikes – pass me by.

If I do need to go further afield, I now depend on Ubers, hire cars and Zipcars. That may sound like an indulgence but I’ve calculated that I’ve saved an average of around £6,000 a year – £90,000 in total – since I abandoned the motor. And that annual figure has just gone on rising, as driving has become increasingly punished by local and national governments.

Just think of it. No huge initial outlay on a car, barely relieved on sale because of punishing depreciation levels. No insurance. No tax. No parking fines or fees. No car washes. No MOT. No repairs. No pumping up the tyres or checking the tyre pressure and the window washer reservoir. And never a single Ulez charge.

If I go outside London for work or pleasure, I take the train and hire a car once I get to my destination station. That means I’m never punished by parking fines or fees in other cities.

I only hire a car to get out of a city – like I did in Wolverhampton the other day to head out to the green hills of Shropshire. So, once I leave the hire car place, I’m always racing away from urban parking controls to the country, where parking is joyfully free.

Out in the countryside, there’s none of the restrictions on those cars that are so heavily punished in London. In Wales, where I share a cottage with my brother, sister and parents, we use a diesel Golf that would be brutally fined in London but zooms around the Welsh country lanes, untrammelled by fines – or other cars.

There’s a vulgar American expression used by the super-rich: “If it flies, floats or f***s, always rent it. It’s cheaper in the long run.”

That disgusting idiom applies to planes, yachts and escorts – and not to my life, I promise. But it does apply to me when it comes to cars.

Renting gives you all the joy of driving in the best, empty places with none of the dead weight of an expensive chunk of metal that spends most of its life, sitting stationary on the street outside your front door – running up the hefty cost of a parking permit while it sits there doing nothing.

Please forgive my smugness. I adore cars – and I knew the pleasure of having one at my beck and call.

In the long-ago days before Ulez and hyper-expensive parking fees across London – when there were fewer traffic jams, too – private car ownership was a pleasure.

Look at old episodes of The Sweeney or Minder and you’ll see familiar bits of London – including my native Islington – with empty streets, no yellow lines and no parking controls.

No longer. Car ownership has been taxed and fined out of its comfort zone.

Harry Mount is author of Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever (Bloomsbury)

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