Long Reads

Learning to drive: “why I wish I’d passed my driving test before leaving London”

Thinking of upping sticks and leaving the city before passing your driving test? Read this cautionary tale first.

Confession time: I spent most of my teenage years trying – and failing – to pass my driving test. I had good cause to do so, as I lived about… ooh, let’s say a 45-minute walk from a Zone 6 station? My closest bus stop, too, was about 20 minutes away, if I upped my pace to a light jog. And even if I slipped on a pair of running shoes and made that oh-so-boring journey, it was never guaranteed that a bus or train would actually turn up.

Despite these very good reasons to transform my green provisional license into a snazzy pink one, though, I never managed to do so. Oh sure, I had lessons. The first-ever time I got behind the wheel, my dad barking commands at me from the passenger seat, I crashed into a lamppost. 

Then there was the very sweet driving instructor who barely broke a sweat when I mounted the pavement during an ill-advised parallel parking session. The first driving test, which I failed. The second driving test, which I was pumped for but that got cancelled due to an unfortunately timed instructors’ strike. 

Like I say, I tried. And then I moved to London and sort of… yeah, sort of decided I didn’t need to learn anymore.

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“Nobody drives in London, unless they’re driving a taxi or a bus,” I’d say, breezily waving away those concerned relatives who feared for my independence.

If that didn’t work, I had plenty more excuses up my sleeve, including such gems as: there’s never any parking; the traffic is always horrendous; the lessons are too expensive; I can’t afford a car anyway; I would, but it’s bad for the planet.

I assumed I’d live in London forever. That I’d be using the city’s brilliant transport links forever. And then I met a big-hearted gardener, with smiling eyes and a thirst for adventure, and somehow wound up moving into the suburbs with him.

Woman waiting at bus stop in the rain
Learning to drive: “it’s time to admit that my overreliance on public transport has reached a crisis point.”

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve loved having lakes, and fields, and marshlands on my doorstep (anyone who’s read my piece about slow-living in Wales will know already that I’m an annoyingly outdoorsy person). I’ve loved having the space required to adopt a rescue dog. I’ve loved living with the aforementioned gardener. And I’ve loved living in the sort of village where people are on nodding terms with one another, saying hello in bright perky voices when they pass one another on the pavement (although admittedly it did take me a long time to get used to this).

What I haven’t loved, though, is being unable to get myself around.

Before lockdown, I once attempted to get a bus into the nearest town so that I could get my hair done. I waited well over an hour for a bus that never came, before giving up and trudging home again in a foul mood.

I also discovered that, while my mum’s house is only a 30-minute drive away, it takes well over an hour and half to get there via public transport. And I learned the hard way that, if I wanted to get into our central London office by 9am, I had to leave my house by 6.30am at the very latest – and even that wasn’t a guarantee.  

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During lockdown, my world became even smaller. No trains, no buses, no “non-essential journeys” meant that I rarely left the village. If anyone has been tracking my movements via my phone (and I’m sure plenty of conspiracy theorists believe that someone has), they would have been very bored to see that I spent my time wandering between my house, the little Co-Op round the corner, and the local park.

Fun fact: ‘popping out’ requires a lot more planning when you a) no longer live in the city and b) don’t have a car. Because, even as restrictions are lifted and non-essential travel isn’t just allowed, but actively encouraged (methinks someone is attempting to plug a hole in the economy), I’m still faced with the fact that none of my friends live within walking distance. That my arms are only able to carry so many bags of shopping. That my boots are made for walking, but only so much walking. That I have to keep asking people for lifts, like a moany teen. 

Learning to drive: “I’m sick of having to rely on lifts from my boyfriend when I want to get somewhere.”
Learning to drive: “I’m sick of having to rely on lifts from my boyfriend when I want to get somewhere.”

It’s time to admit that my overreliance on public transport has reached a crisis point. That I’m going to have to get my wallet out for yet more lessons, again. And that my cavalier attitude towards passing my driving test back when I was a teen has 100% come back to bite me in the ass.

I’m not the only foolhardy city dweller who wishes they’d sorted their driving licence out earlier in life, of course. Here, three women share their thoughts on their own car-less existences.

Hollie Richardson says she feels like a teenager

I was just about to take my driving test when I graduated and moved cities. That was eight years ago now. I have cursed myself for not being able to drive a million times since then. Living in London for the last 4 years, it’s not a problem when I’m just getting about the city. I actually love cycling place to place or reading my book on the Tube. However, every time I go home I feel like a teenager again.

My mum gets angry over me treating her like a taxi service, and rightly so. It’s actually pretty embarrassing working out how to meet my friends somewhere when they just drive there. ALL my friends from home can drive and have houses and spouses and kids. They must think I’m a sort of Peter Pan who waltzes up from London on fairy dust. 

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Lockdown has made things worse: I can’t drive to the coast or to see my family and friends. I can only do London-centric things, which is a bit shit at the moment tbh. But the fact is: I can’t afford lessons. And even if I had a license, I can’t afford to keep a car.

So I guess I’ll just keep missing out on trips, drive-in cinemas, big supermarket shops etc. It’s not right, but it’s OK.

Victoria Sanusi says she’s going to keep trying

I’ve been learning how to drive since I was 24 years old. Two years have passed and I still don’t have my pink license. I’ve taken countless driving tests and on my last I nearly succeeded but the instructor was nervous whether I’d actually stop in traffic or not. I just wanted to give up then and there because learning to drive is so bloody expensive.

Lockdown has heightened my frustrations, I feel trapped indoors, my independence is completely stripped as I work from home in Essex. My local transport makes absolutely no sense cost-wise or timewise. Why is a bus ride one hour but 12 minutes by car to the same destination?

Learner driver
Learning to drive: “I can’t afford lessons. And even if I had a license, I can’t afford to keep a car.”

I can’t go to my boyfriend’s house whenever I want or run errands without having to rely on my younger brothers who can drive. DVLA cancelled my test in June due to COVID-19 and they’ve recently emailed me with an update saying that because my theory test certificate will expire in September and the government, unfortunately, won’t allow them to extend my certificate due to safety measures which I wholeheartedly understand but it’s incredibly annoying.

But I’m not going to let this get the best of me. I go for drives with my dad every other week and he always ensures me ‘you can drive! You just need to pass your test and get your confidence up’ I hang onto those words because deep down I know it’s possible.

Megan Murray says she’s too scared to learn

I wasn’t ever wild about the idea of learning to drive as a teenager. I went to school in a village in Nottinghamshire and while other sixth formers were keen to get their own car, I knew I wouldn’t be hanging around there for long with my sights set on university in London. I loved city life and lived there for 10 years, navigating the tube like a pro and loving that no matter where you pointed out on a map there would be some sort of overground, train, bus or tube to get you there with no need for a car. Plus, as anyone who does have a car in London will know, there’s usually little space to keep it, the roads are a nightmare and it’s probably slower than using public transport anyway.

But then lockdown happened, didn’t it? 

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It’s no secret that lockdown has changed everything. The pandemic has slide tackled everything we knew as the norm including sitting at our desks 9-5, our routines and dynamics in our friendships, our travelling plans for the future and the economy. I moved to Lewes, a very small town outside of Brighton, in January. My London office closed in March. And, since then, I have been stuck, marooned, unable to easily get home to my family and friends in Nottingham, visit friends around the country or get into London without going on a grimy train.

Without my daily commute into the city I’ve found myself in an area where I have no friends, no work space and I’m far across the country from those I’d like to see most right now. I’m with my boyfriend but it’s still felt lonely at times and stressful relying on each other for companionship 24/7. It’s in this moment that I’ve realised how brilliant it would have been to get my test out of the way at 17, and now be able to borrow my boyfriend’s car or get something small for myself and have the freedom to work from whoever of my friends or family’s homes I chose. With nothing to do at the weekends I would have had my autonomy reinstated, able to visit the seaside or countryside spots. The pandemic has stripped away a lot of my independence and having freedom to transport myself wherever I wanted would have helped get a little bit of that back, I think.

Learning to drive: “I wasn’t ever wild about the idea of learning to drive as a teenager.”
Learning to drive: “I wasn’t ever wild about the idea of learning to drive as a teenager.”

So, I asked my dad to take me out in his Mini. I thought - how hard can it be? He drove us to a car park and absent mindly chatted me through the basics of driving. After knowing all of this like the back of his hand for 35 years, he seemed to think it would just click for me, too. 

Well, it didn’t. At all. Every move I made I felt more and more terrified, the many components of driving too much for me to take in which was even more unsettling thanks to what’s at stake if you don’t get it right - like people’s lives. Some, I believe, thrive off the feeling of revving an engine and being in control of the machine, but I absolutely hated it. The overwhelm was exhausting and I couldn’t get my head around not being able to see the end of the car, or the wheels for that matter, and therefore how I would avoid hitting things.

Now I feel trapped. I know that knowing how to drive would be helpful but I really, really, really don’t want to put myself behind the wheel. I can’t take the pressure.

There has been a spike in google searches for driving tests and driving lessons over the past few days. Indeed, interest has almost doubled in the last week alone. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that Covid-19 restrictions have lifted enough for us all to clamber in a learner car with a stranger and hit the roads under their supervision. But I think it’s also largely down to the fact that lockdown forced so many of us to confront the reality of life in 2020: when you don’t live in a city, being able to drive a car is absolutely vital if you want to maintain some modicum of independence.

With that in mind, then, it seems I’ll once again be joining the throngs of teenagers signing up for driving lessons. Yes, I’ll be doing so at the tender age of 31. Yes, I feel embarrassed about it. And yes, I can’t help but wonder if that old adage of ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ will prove itself to be true.

Despite all of these misgivings, though, I’m going to stick at my lessons until I bloody pass. Because, quite frankly, I’m sick of having to rely on lifts from my boyfriend when I want to get somewhere.

That’s not who I am. That’s not who I want to be. And that’s a chapter in my life I hope to be revving away from, in my very own (eco-friendly) car very soon indeed.

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