This morning I went to look at a new flat. I’d quite like to keep living in London close to the river, even though it is very expensive. So it’s time to downsize to a one-bedder.
The flat was in a 1930s mansion block which, unusually, had car parking spaces. This particular flat, however, didn’t have parking. The estate agent suggested I talk to the management company, which might have a space for sale – for which I should expect to pay around £15,000.
I explained to her that a parking space was essential for me. Then I had a thought. "Do people looking for flats usually ask for parking?" With a Gallic shrug, she said: "Not really. If you are selling to a family, they will have a car, but people in flats usually don’t."
It was at that point I realised, after 21 years as a motoring hack and a London resident, I am now officially a dinosaur. A relic of the 1980s who grew up influenced by motoring magazines and the futuristic verve of the landmark 1989 Tokyo auto show.
I didn’t personally have a need for speed, but the sheer utility of the car – and, often, the joy of great design and engineering – has made a massive difference to my life. The four major house renovations I’ve executed over the previous years would have been inconceivable without personal transport.
Ironically, I was having this conversation in a street that has had seven or eight resident’s parking spaces removed to make room for Mayor Boris’s rental bikes.True, the expansion of public transport in London has been pretty massive. Buses run with remarkable regularity, though it needs the combination of a £600m per year subsidy and a massive user base to make the 8000-strong fleet viable.
There’s also the tube system, a pretty effective new orbital overground railway and the promise of the massive Crossrail project, which will spear high-speed trains straight through the centre of the capital.
In this corner of Battersea, there’s even the promise of a new foot and cycle bridge so we can nip over the river to Chelsea. And I have to admit that I’m not immune to the move to public transport. I have an Oyster card to hand at all times for cashless use of buses and tubes. And it’s pretty cool to travel on the New Routemaster bus that started its life in the pages of Autocar.
But I’ve also just joined the Zipcar hire service (or would have had my membership card not been ‘intercepted’ in the postal system). There’s a Mk7 Zipcar Golf in the car park at my current flat and handy VW Zipcar vans in their own parking spaces in the next street.
And you can tell that many Zipcar users are – as you might expect - relatively inexperienced drivers. The big vans are often dented, though not as badly as the hire Transit at the local home store, which has had its extended roof properly stoved in by one renter.
Indeed, the streets of this corner of southwest London are increasingly marked out in defined slots for favoured means of transport. There are sections for car share schemes, Boris bikes, motorcycles, bus stops, electric car charging spaces and short-term loading bays. The residents parking bays are shrinking and pay-and-display bays are increasingly rare.
London is not the rest of country and will always been its own place. But if the country-wide trend is for the debt-laden young to move back into urban areas and are unlikely to own a car until they have a family – or have any enthusiasm for owning a car at all – it will have a major impact on the car industry long into the future.