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Again On Transports: Car Culture, Motors, And Me

Last year, I have discussed some of the limits of transports affecting people with diabetes, like me, but I haven’t really dug into my personal preferences in terms of transport, at least not much.

As the post at least makes sufficiently clear, I’m not a car driver, and I’m not thrilled at the idea of becoming one (more to that later). The license limits I discussed in the post have little to nothing to do with the reason why I don’t drive — there’s a combination of factors, including the kind of minor psychological trauma of failing my practical exam because the examiner got annoyed with my driving school instructor that day, and me being the first candidate of the day, and also a general dislike for “car culture” as a general application.

And yes, I’m fairly sure that my failure was related more to the examiner/instructor interaction that day for two reasons: the first is that the examiner nearly shouted at the instructor, because the latter insisted on having a motorbike test under heavy rain that morning; the second is that of the two mistakes I made, one was just a lie: the examiner insisted I hit the curb, but I didn’t — my instructor only checked after the examiner signed me as failed, and told me to try again. To add to that, I didn’t have the cash to try again right after, and I had to wait for two hours under the rain to be able to get anywhere. Yes, that experience tainted my feeling about driving for the past twenty years or so.

Given the current “extremely online” discourse, car culture is often, if not mostly, a synonym for USA culture, but I believe there are regional, or at least national, differences. Also, thankfully, a number of these established norms are finally going away — though others appear to be so extremely entrenched in the way people live their lives, that I doubt I will see them going fully away in my lifetime.

As an example, after the whole fiasco of my practical test in Italy, I inquired about being able to get a license limited to automatic cars, as my only real mistake during the test was leaving the traffic light in second gear, without stalling, but technically incorrect. — this will sound strange for many North American people, for whom cars with automatic shift is the default, but in Europe you have to take your practical test with a stick shift car, if you want a “normal”, fully fledged category B driving license. In some countries (including Ireland and my adoptive country UK) you can choose to take the test on an automatic car and get a “limited license” that is only valid to drive automatic cars — with an interesting point that “robotic manual gear” systems as used in supercars also counts as “automatic”, because they only have two pedals, which is all that the license limitation requires.

In Italy, that wasn’t an option and, to the best of my understanding, still isn’t: limited, automatic-only licenses do exist, but they are only issued as part of a medical exemption, whether mandated (like a classmate of my mother, who had polio as a kid and was the first person I met driving a car without a stick shift!) or requested. I could have indeed requested an exemption for my diabetes, but that also meant requiring a medical review every few years, which limits not just which cars you can use, but also how long your license is valid for.

Back then, the advise from everyone around me was to get on with the program, and learn to drive shift, with the reasoning provided being that automatic cars are flimsy, more expensive, a smaller pool to choose from. In this regard, USA and Europe feel like completely different planets! But fast forward some twenty years, and the advent of hybrid and electric cars had let the world solve this conundrum for me (to borrow a saying from Adam Savage once again). By their own nature, those cars have no option to drive “stick” in their own place, which means a limited automatic license can now drive a much larger pool of cars, and said pool is actually expanding year over year. Plus, at least two of the friends who back then dissuaded me from pursuing a limited automatic license, started driving automatic cars, and told me they would never go back to stick — though to be honest, part of that is also due to improvements in the technology to begin with.

So I pretty much gave up, and lived for a number of years, in Italy, with no driving license, in a part of town with no public transport available, and with no cycle lane — so even once I learnt to ride a bike, I really didn’t feel like going around in a bike very often. The closest to owning a vehicle I have been there, was getting a moped certificate (which I should have eventually traded in for an category AM license, but I never bothered), simply because it required no practical test — and it felt like cheating because the theory test tends to be a cakewalk for me. My original plan related to getting this was to get something like a Piaggio MP3 (can you get more of a millennial name?) which can be driven with the same category license as usual two wheel mopeds, but does not rely on my (terrible) balance, but thanks to the marketing push from Renault that happened around the same time, I came very close to buying a Twizy instead.

And I probably would have, had it come with actual windows, rather than relying on aftermarket plastic sheets at best. But then, I moved to Dublin. Given my use cases back then, the Twizy would have been a great option on paper: I basically needed something that would be able to pack a computer or two (in the hold or on the backseat), to get them from my mother’s house in the middle of nowhere (where I used to maintain the hardware for my customers) to my customers downtown, or to the train station to get to the customers further away.

While I did take some driving lessons in Dublin, and passed my theory test, I never took the practical test. I considered doing so in London, but then I found the whole “hazard perception” test annoying to train for, and gave up for a while. My learner permit actually required renewal while we were in lockdown, and required me to get a renewed medical form, which I didn’t feel like trying to pursuit with the risk of catching COVID. I will probably have to make peace with attempting the hazard perception test at some point though, because if we were to move outside of London proper (which is something we’re considering) it would be useful to be able to take a car at least for a day, if not renting it for a few days — I still find it unlikely that I would want to us a car regularly enough to want to buy one, though I’m not excluding that’s going to happen.

If I was to own a car, I probably would want to have something small and electric, such as the Fiat 500E or something along those lines — and not because of my Italian pride in Fiat, or because Stellantis did me well recently in terms of stock (it did, but I’m not holding any right now, that’s a topic for another day.) The truth is that I like the concept of a small city car, that doesn’t take as much space as an SUV, particularly when the most you’re going to use it for, is to take two people to the airport or train station. But I’m also accepting the fact that as “cute” as I find the 500E, its economics are not particularly enticing: when I compared notes with a friend, the price was almost as much as a luxury car from the year prior, and you can get a much larger and just as efficient Kia or Toyota for the same or less money.

I didn’t feel like trying back with a three-wheeled moped in London either — I have seen the drivers around, and I don’t know I would feel safe enough to try riding around them, though I might consider a (cheaper) Tricity if we move in an area with quieter roads, as it would be plenty, even without a bus, to be able to get to a train station, or to a cafe to write up for a day.

And you can see here an important bit, which is that where I’ve been living in London, there was no need for me to consider driving. Buses, trains, the Tube, and the Elizabeth Line (transport nerds will appreciate the separation of these last three) mean that it is generally a good place to commute from, to most places throughout London — with the exception of my current office. I really enjoy this to be the case. And I’m going to be missing it, whenever we’ll move out, whether it is going to be our next move or in a further future.

I believe there’s going to be at least one more part in my writing up about transports, so if you feel something very obvious is missing here, please do say so, but… also expect that there’s an obvious topic I have barely touched upon, and that it deserves a separate look.

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