Buying a car is not the way to go

The news that James Hind, 28, has raised £5.9 million (S$13 million) to launch Carwow, an online vehicle marketplace, took me back to the day when I bought a new car over the Internet.

It was 2003, when Mr Hind was still a schoolboy, but, even then, Sir Richard Branson was declaring the whole business of going to a dealership and haggling with a salesman outdated. By reimporting Britain-assembled cars that had previously been exported to Cyprus, Virgin Cars was able to undercut the dealers. You chose a car online, made a payment and picked up your vehicle at an out-of-town garage.

The catch? There wasn't one. When the car alarm went off for no reason, Virgin Cars sent someone around to fix it. And the Honda Civic, if a little chipped and bumped, has not given a moment's trouble since then.

So when it finally dies, will I buy a new car online? No.

Virgin Cars is no longer around.

And I can no longer see a reason to buy a car. There are greener, less stressful and cheaper alternatives.

Start with the stress. In most cities, driving is horrible. It is stop-start, boring and bad-tempered. Many people say they drive because they do not like being crushed against other sweaty, disagreeable commuters.

I have driven and I have commuted. Fellow passengers are a great deal more civilised than other drivers - and their odours are less offensive than the emissions you inhale in a car.

In many cities today, there really is no need for a car. Public transport and walking can get you almost everywhere you need to go. It is healthier and it is greener. In London, I don't drive for weeks, or sometimes months, at a time. (Others have taken to bicycles. I do not regard them as healthier - certainly not in London.)

Do not listen to anyone who tells you London's transport is unreliable. I have taken the Northern Line, London Underground's supposed "misery line", twice every working day for 24 years. It lets me down two or three times 1/8a year. Compare that to the hours drivers spent trapped by roadworks, diversions or other cars. There is nothing convenient about driving.

In most European and many Asian and US cities, it is far quicker and easier to get around without a car. There are apps to tell you when the trains and buses are leaving. And there are apps to get you a car when you really need one.

In a blog post last year, Mr Kyle Hill, chief executive of HomeHero, which provides carers for the elderly, explained why he had sold his Lexus and decided to do without a car - in Los Angeles.

He said he cycled on journeys up to 8km. For anything longer, he used Uber. He calculated it was cheaper than running a car, with its purchase payments, interest, depreciation, insurance, petrol, maintenance and taxes.

And do not, he said, forget parking. At a recent dinner in New York, someone told me he paid US$500 (S$683) a month to park in his apartment building. When I expressed astonishment, everyone else chipped in that that was cheap.

A New York Times article in September said the average residential parking space in Manhattan cost US$136,052 to buy, and that some were selling for up to US$1 million. A secure underground parking space in Knightsbridge, London, cost £350,000, it said.

Those are extreme prices, but all parking is a hassle, as are parking tickets. There may be people who really cannot manage without a car: those who live in the country, for example, where there are no good bus services.

But the majority of us are city dwellers and, even in those places without good public transport, there will soon be online taxi services, if there aren't already.

Some will say that none of this matters because cars will soon be self-driving. If so, that is another reason not to buy one you have to drive yourself, whether from a dealer or online.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2015, with the headline 'Buying a car is not the way to go'. Print Edition | Subscribe