Thoughts on buying a car
I hate cars.
I don’t hate mechanics, and cars are an amazing illustration of the ingenuity of humans as a species. Hell, I used to have posters of sports cars in my bedroom growing up (as I believe every pre-teen male did once they out-grew Pokemon). No, what I hate about cars is what they do to cities.
This is a larger topic which has been written about extensively by people a lot smarter than I; but in a nutshell:
- Cars irredeemably clog up cities via induced demand.
- They make the landscape of cities dreary through minimum parking requirements.
- They are the main (and possibly only) contributor to noise pollution in cities (cities aren't loud, cars are loud).
- The same can be said for air pollution, with thousands of preventable deaths directly attributed to car emissions.
- They make cities less safe (especially for children).
Think about it. Cars are the only example of modern humans accidentally killing one-another on a regular basis.
I live in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s beautiful here with our craggy mountains, freezing oceans, and silly penguins. I love this city.
For the past few years I’ve been getting about on a motorcycle or in an Uber (not to mention walking). Despite two minor bumps by half-asleep drivers, this has worked for me. But I spent the last 3 months in Indonesia (where everyone rides a motorcycle) and it made me realise just how unsafe South African roads are. I’d recommend reading the essay, but in conclusion: it is safer to ride a motorcycle in Indonesia than it is to drive a car in South Africa.
That, combined with how cold, wet, and windy Cape Town can get makes riding (or walking for that matter) completely unfeasible for parts of the year. There’s also the unfortunate aspect of a high crime rate which makes walking after dark a bit of a no-no (my US and EU friends are always shocked to hear I’ve been held up 5 or 6 times in the past 8 years). Due to all of these factors I take quite a lot of Ubers, which add up over time. However, Uber drivers regularly go on strike (as they should, they’re terribly underpaid) and at certain times of day it can be pretty difficult to get a ride.
The only (unfortunate) solution: We had to get a car.
Here’s what we got: A bright orange Suzuki S-presso which my partner and I have named Naartjie (a South African soft citrus similar to a mandarin).
The rational for such a small and (let’s be entirely honest) cute car is well thought out (yes, I’ve run the numbers).
- It is the least intrusive of cars. It takes up less space than pretty much any other car on the road, makes relatively little noise, and has an incredibly efficient 1 litre engine which produces very few exhaust fumes.
- It’s nippy for getting around the small streets of Cape Town and is easy to parallel park (which is a necessity here; there are no Hummers for this reason).
- It is used by both my partner and I (generally together) and so benefits from carrying multiple people to their destination, essentially cutting the emissions (and expense) per person in half. I also use it to pick up Simon who works out at the same gym as me on Mondays and Wednesdays, which saves him about R500 a month on Ubers.
- On top of that, the back seat comfortably fits two adults (a rare find, coming from a tall guy who has spent a lot of time in Ubers).
- It has incredibly good fuel consumption at 4.9 litres/100 km (although with stop-start city driving this is about 5.2 litres/100 km). It’s almost as fuel efficient as my motorcycle!
- It’s more eco friendly than a Tesla (if you take into account the carbon cost of manufacturing, as well as battery replacements) even if the Tesla runs on pure renewables. This is being generous since in South Africa pretty much all of our electricity is from coal-burning power plants. Of course, an EV of a similar size to Naartjie would be more energy efficient, but there’s not enough charging infrastructure in this country to justify an EV (yet).
- I’m not worried about parking it on the street overnight (which I'd never do with a Ferrari). This mentality also applies to minor dings and scratches. This is a functional vehicle and not a status symbol. If I bump a dustbin and scratch the paint or dent a panel, that’s okay. It’s going to get a bit dinged over the next decade.
- It retains its resale value better than most other cars (assuming point 7 is kept to a minimum). Japanese car manufacturers are at the top of the list on this front with Toyota, Honda, and Suzuki retaining up to 70% of their resale value over 7 years.
- This car is reliable and easy to repair. As with Toyota, these cars are built with lean design principles and have a very long expected life. The parts are easily available at a reasonable price, and pretty much any garage can do the repair work. No need to go to a specialist.
In summary, if you have an engine that can go over 120 kmph (the legal limit in South Africa) you’re carrying around excess engine. Instead, a car which is inexpensive with high reliability and low cost of repairs makes a lot more sense.
So far I’ve been happy with this car. It does one job and does it very well. I’ve also been enjoying the autonomy owning a car brings such as getting away for the weekend with friends or my partner. And going to the gym isn’t a hassle any longer (riding my motorcycle with wobbly arms after a hard workout was probably not advisable).
There are, however, problems. All of the reasons for not becoming a car owner, and the issues with car ownership are now mine.
- Finding (and paying for) parking in the city is stressful and time-consuming. With Uber they’d just drop me at the door; and no-one cares where I park my motorcycle.
- In South Africa there are informal car guards who will “watch your car” for a tip. They’re little more than beggars, unfortunately, which means I have to deal with them asking for money more regularly. It’s a disheartening, sad, and an overall shitty experience.
- Similarly to point 2, people pay more attention to me, from people asking for money to people unsolicitedly washing my windshield (hoping for a tip). I hate all of this confrontation.
- And finally, I feel it’s much easier to be lazy and take the car instead of walking to destinations that I would have previously considered well within walking distance.
With all those issues out of the way, my overall experience has been a nett positive. A shared car works for us, however for individual autonomy I’m playing with the idea of getting an e-bike to zip around the city in the summer. It’s safer than a motorcycle due to the speed I can achieve, yet has the same benefits.
I’m also making an active effort to walk where possible. To get groceries in the afternoon, or to a cafe for a morning coffee. These are not car-worthy endeavours. I will also make sure to use it with others as much as possible. There are 5 seats in this bad-boy and I don’t like unused resources.
On a final note, the most environmentally friendly thing you can do with your car is keep it running forever since the embedded carbon cost of a new car will always significantly effect your carbon economics. My plan is to service and repair this car myself (once the service plan runs out) and keep it running until ICE cars become illegal.