Bye, bye driving

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Returning to public transport leaves me open to the world's diversity and reminds me others exist

In a few weeks, I will say goodbye to driving forever.

I'm not actually being dramatic, for once. At month's end, my mother's little Kia Picanto is due for the scrapyard. Looking at the sums involved, it's definitely the last car she will ever own.

Just to extend the Kia's Certificate of Entitlement (COE) for five years would cost us $30,000.

Second-hand cars won't go below $50,000 and I shudder to think of the $150,000-adjacent prices people pay for new cars nowadays.

The thing is, as a single, childless and able-bodied person, paying this kind of money for a car - the fastest-depreciating asset in Singapore - is simply unjustifiable.

I wouldn't be paying for the relief of not carrying a stroller onto a public bus or having my child misbehave in the privacy of my own vehicle.

At this stage of life, driving to me is about being able to wear heels, sing aloud to the radio, wake up slightly later and fully air-condition my entire existence.

Knowing unequivocally that that's not worth $50,000 to me is a welcome sign that my moral fibre remains largely intact.

This state of affairs is not seasonal or temporary. People who think that we just need to wait until COE prices fall again don't read the news.

I don't have that excuse since I write the news. And the news is that the Government is capping vehicle population growth at 0 per cent soon, down from the current 0.25 per cent - already a historic low.

To put things in perspective, when COEs were so low in the 2005 to 2008 period that some went for a dollar, vehicle population growth was up to 6.5 per cent a year.

The congestion we have today is a direct result of that policy of rapid growth.

So owning a car is never going to be much cheaper than it is now. Perhaps one day, other factors in my life will make that cost worth it, but that's in the far-off, meaningless future.

Despite this clarity, I feel a surge of resentment and resistance at my impending return to public transport.

I have never actually driven regularly until a few months ago, when my mother started a new job that she didn't need a car to get to.

Since the car was going to be scrapped soon, she also didn't care about me abusing it in its last few months.

This small stretch of driving my own car should be a footnote compared to the 28 years prior of public transport - but it has, in fact, been transformative.

It has shown me convincingly that just like with employing a maid, one can keep one's principles only up until the point you experience how much better life is, without.

Everything I prided myself on when taking public transport - hardiness, discipline, a certain folksy salt-of-the-earth quality that was true to my HDB heartland roots and made me morally superior to my silver-spooned peers - went flying out the window once I had access to my own car.

Folksiness be damned, I was fully in charge of my own transport destiny, air-conditioned to boot.

The comfort level that driving achieves is incomparable because what it allows is total insulation from unfamiliar human beings.

It requires nothing from you at all, not manners, not compromise, not any physical exertion beyond a light and sustained inflection of the right foot.

For the thing that makes modern life so trying is other people. Their unfamiliar habits, smells and sounds. Pressing up against their bodies, being hit by their large bags or shoved in their haste. Being unable to get a taxi because they are also trying to get a taxi.

Driving your own car is a respite from all of that, from life and all its pressures, and more importantly, from other people's lives and their pressures.

My little Kia Picanto was a metal shield against the world and its exhaustions.

Knowing this is also to know why, for all my reluctance, it would perhaps do me good to return to public transport.

The Kia shielded me also from the world's colour and diversity and made me less curious about what was outside its air-conditioned interior. A car is not just about physical efficiency but also psychological streamlining. It lets you forget that other people exist, so you're freed up to just think about yourself.

Which is a shame because there's nothing more dull, after a while.

Insulation, after all, is a stop on the way to indifference. Not having to adjust my life to anyone else's is to start to believe that only my existence - my unoriginal thoughts, my first-world problems - matters.

Several years ago, I spent a week in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving with a wealthy American friend. At the time, I was studying in New York City.

That week, we zipped everywhere in her little sports car, which transported us seamlessly from her Beverley Hills home to shops and restaurants, where there was always a valet waiting to park her car.

There was even valet parking at her university.

It was my first brush with the blitheness of the 1 per cent. That there was valet parking at her university struck my young, socialist heart as a perversion of the highest degree, but this was the only reality she had ever known.

The only thing I remember from that trip now was seeing Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys in a restaurant - and how bored I otherwise felt the whole time.

It seemed like an airless existence, all glimmering, clean surfaces.

Back in New York City, I exited the airport onto a subway train where I was squeezed up against several large, Hispanic women who talked over me in a foreign language.

It was an uncomfortable and interminable ride and I spent most of it wishing that those women would disappear or at least, I would get a seat.

But it still felt like reality, like I had returned to earth after a surreal visit to another planet.

I may have just done the best spin job on behalf of the Government's car- ownership policy on myself.

But considering I already live much of my life now in rarefied air, a bit less of it might do me some good.

rchang@sph.com.sg