Personal mobility – life without a car

Helene Dyrhauge |

The car is important for our personal mobility; it gives you freedom and independence. In rural areas and small towns a car is necessary to be able to get around, whereas people living in cities often do not own a car as their mobility is orientated towards walking, biking or public transport within the urban environment. The following blog post explores how our choice of place to live influences our personal mobility, especially the difference between car owners and users of public transport, and our orientation towards the urban or rural.  Many of the observations are based on my personal experience as a non-car owner, which are linked to my research interests in mobility and politics of sustainable mobility.

Currently, new students across Europe are moving away from home and looking for accommodation near their universities. Roskilde University (RUC) is located 24 min by train from Copenhagen central station, although there are halls of residence available next to RUC most students prefer to live in Copenhagen because the capital offers lots of opportunities e.g. cafes, bars and shops. Some students even think the train journey from Copenhagen to RUC is too long or too expensive instead their personal mobility is orientated towards their local neighbourhood instead of their place of education.  (Please note most RUC students do come to university, my comments refer to a small minority). After graduation, some RUC students move to Roskilde[i] to live with their families because the town gives them a better quality of life compared to central Copenhagen. Throughout our lives we have different life style preferences, different use of infrastructure changes together with these stages and the choices we make about which life style we want.

Living in Roskilde; I have always seen myself as having a broad mobility horizon, yet not owning a car does limit my mobility.  I often take the train to Copenhagen to use cultural opportunities available in the capital and to visit friends. Crucially the public infrastructure mainly feed traffic between the capital and surrounding towns instead of connecting urban and rural areas. Consequently, I have neglected exploring the rural area west of Roskilde[ii], partly because it is not well connected by public transport – typical 1 bus per hour or 1 bus every 2 hour. Interestingly, when I was living in Leeds (the UK) I would often take the bus to Ilkley and go hiking in the Ilkley moors[iii], something I have missed whilst living in Roskilde for the past 3 years.  Thus I have certain mobility biases, which are shaped by my interests, social network and lack of car-ownership!

This spring a friend invited me to a fruit wine festival in Falster, which is a 2 hour drive from Roskilde. The farm can only be reached by car. In Australia, the USA or Germany people travel for several hours to watch a football match or visit friends/family. The size of Denmark makes it possible to reach most corners within a 5 hour drive, but in most countries non-car owners are restricted by availability of public transport, which mainly connects the territorial core and urban areas because it is not economic sustainable to run public transport is rural areas. Hence, due to my non-car ownership I had missed out tasting some amazing apple ciders!

It can be challenging to visit a friend if you do not have a car, unless the friend lives in an urban area with good access to public transport. It takes 24 min by car from Roskilde to visit a friend, who lives 26 km away in a small town in the rural area of Zealand (the same distance to Copenhagen city centre) yet by public transport it takes either 45 min or 1h 14 min depending on which route you take, just as there is only one connection an hour and only during the day.  It can take just as long to reach friends living in suburbs near Copenhagen, yet there are more connections, which makes it more accessible. Interestingly, the main climbing wall in Copenhagen is located on Refshaleøen, which is an island in central Copenhagen, yet there is limited public transport after 6pm. By comparison the climbing club in Hvalsø, south west of Roskilde, is accessible by hourly train from Roskilde. Thus, urban areas have pockets which are inaccessible by public transport.

The above three examples tie into the ongoing Danish political debate about rural versus urban (udkantsdanmark), which essentially is about the economic core versus economic periphery. The debate has mainly focused on housing market and investment in transport infrastructure. Our choice of living is structured by our work place, income, social network, children’s day care facilities and accessible infrastructure. Yet we have agency to choose where we live, our preference for a rural, village, town, suburban or city life style influence our choice of place to call home. Importantly, an urban/city dweller can still enjoy nature and a rural dweller still enjoys the cultural attractions of the city. Life is not static, as a student you have different preferences compared to a family, a single person or a pensioner, so it is natural to move between city, suburban and rural living. Indeed I know several people who have made the transition between city and rural lives successfully. Each type of life style and stage in your life require access to infrastructure, and our patterns of mobility will be affected by our choice of place to live. Here the question of car ownership and availability of public transport is important for us as individuals, yet our personal mobility is also influenced by political priorities in relation to investment in road infrastructure versus public transport.

(I would like to thank fellow kayaking enthusiast E.B. for inspiration and challenging my urban non-car ownership life style)

[ii] Skjoldungelandet (Sagnlandet, Boserup skov og Bognæs), several local microbreweries