Nine teenagers converge excitedly at a former WW2 POW camp in rural Perthshire, looking forward to a campout in an unusual setting. Teenage “me time” – the chance to hang out, eat rubbish, talk their own brand of chitter-chatter and generally enjoy the summer vacation time after a year of COVID restrictions and general weirdness.
These 16 and 17-year-olds are on the verge of adulthood. A few of them have just left school and are about to embark upon the next phase of their lives. But what are their assumptions, expectations and preconceptions on what might carry them on that journey once the taxi of mum and dad ceases to be available (if it ever was), and what role does climate change play in their thinking on electric vehicles and public transport?
Scotland in Motion gatecrashed the party to find out.
Although all of these youngsters are either already eligible to learn to drive or soon will be, none have taken that step so far, and only four actively want to learn to drive.
“There isn’t really much need to,” says Abbie. “Most of us are planning to go to either Edinburgh or Glasgow [to college or uni], where there is so much public transport,” she pauses for a moment before adding, “And also the roads are just terrifying.”
This is met with much nodding and mutters of general agreement from the others.
“It’s just such a big responsibility to be in charge of this big, powerful machine,” says Max. “I’m just really nervous about that. Maybe I’ll change my mind at some point, though.”
Emily agrees, adding: “Maybe if I learned, it would be less scary, but because I don’t know, I would just rather take the bus. And it has the added plus that it’s better for the environment.”
Robin is more confident about the prospect of driving. Growing up, Robin was familiarised with the automobile through that process of osmosis that comes with having a parent interested in cars. His engineer dad “always has a few on the go” (currently four). “It’s not that I didn’t want to learn about them,” he explains, “It’s just that I didn’t have much option not to.”
Joanna (my daughter) falls into the same category. With both parents working in the automotive sector and a dad who’s a classic car nut, she inevitably has a heightened awareness of cars, and is itching to get started with driving lessons when she turns 17 this year.
Fun fact: I play badminton
Career plan: Play badminton
Fun fact: Had letter correspondence with David Attenborough
Career plan: Marine biologist
Eight of the nine youngsters live in rural Strathearn, where public transport is pretty sparse, limited to a couple of bus services linking to Perth and Stirling – about half an hour by car, but an hour or more by bus. For that reason, most of them stay pretty close to home for much of the time.
However, badminton player Abbie is already accustomed to getting around by public transport. She plays at elite level and, Covid restrictions notwithstanding, frequently travels to training camps, competitions and other events all over Scotland and further afield – nearly always by public transport as her household was, until very recently, one of the 28% in Scotland that don’t have access to a car.
“My mum only passed her driving test a short time ago and just bought a car,” she explains, adding that it’s yet to make much of an impact as the car has spent a fair bit of time in the garage undergoing repairs.
Tommy is another in the group whose household doesn’t have access to a car. Although not particularly interested in modern cars, he instantly lights up when talking about his “dream car”, an ’86 Toyota Sprinter Trueno (from anime culture). “It’s a beautiful car,” he gushes.
Although he loves the countryside in which he grew up, Tommy is a big fan of cities because they “can store far more people”, arguing that middle-class people tend to live in suburbs, where they take up a lot of space. “I just don’t like suburbs. They really annoy me … and the people who live in them.”
Fun fact: Never been on a plane
Career plan: Don’t know yet
Fun fact: I lived in the Middle East
Career plan: Pharmaceuticals / science
Tommy takes the view that, in cities, those lower down the class rankings often live in blocks of flats. “They’re a bit of an eyesore,” he admits, “but it’s just better for the world at large it we’re able to do the most that we can with as little space as possible.”
Nevertheless, he enjoys the merits of rural life, despite its sparse public transport infrastructure, commenting: “It’s a little bit more inconvenient without a car. But to live somewhere with views like Gilmerton, I think that’s absolutely worth it. I couldn’t care less, if I’ve got to wait an hour for the bus. Because at least I’ve got somewhere nice to look at.”
“You don’t have a job, though,” quips Bianka from behind him: “So, I guess it’s easier for you.”
Bianka is one of those in the group nervous about the idea of driving, but admits to finding cars cool … as do most of the others. Words like freedom and convenience feature highly. They talk animatedly over one another as they muse about road trips, refurbishing “retro cars” to be kinder to environment and what they could do if money were no object.
Abbie remains unimpressed: “Yeah, they’re convenient. That’s about it.” She’s also concerned about the cost of car ownership, calling the cost of insurance for her age group “ridiculous” and pointing out that all that is “put on your parents” for the time being.
Fun fact: I’m going to live in Germany for 6 months
Career plan: Interior designer
Fun fact: Won a stand-off with a bull
Career plan: Actor
When we turn to the topic of cars as a status symbol, all admit that they form opinions on people based on the car they drive. Social commentator Tommy, says: “When I see someone in a Bentley, I don’t look at the car, I look at the person inside it.”
“And there’s this thing that comes with cars that I notice as a pedestrian quite a lot,” he adds, “People, when they’re in the car, they get this sense of superiority. They look out at all they survey as if they own it. And it’s a really weird thing. You don’t notice it when you do it in a car, but everyone does it. They just feel the safety that the car provides them, the status that it provides …” he sighs as he tails off, clearly frustrated as he struggles to articulate what surely many car drivers recognise as that sense of protection imbued by being inside our own car, shielded from the outside world by metal, glass and the speed that offers a means of escape. It’s what psychologists believe is a major contributory factor to road rage.
Or could it just be that non-driver Tommy is misinterpreting the need for a driver to constantly monitor their surroundings? Perhaps, but I digress …
Fun fact: I am vegan
Career plan: Physics / science
Fun fact: I have a cute cat
Career plan: English teacher
Fun fact: I work with horses
Career plan: Joining the RAF
When I raise the subject of transportation and the environment, the mood turns slightly sombre and a mild tone of youthful cynicism brings a cool vein to the warm summer air.
Abbie feels that a lot more companies are are trying to make an effort to go green. “But they’re not doing it fast enough,” she complains, “So, it’s probably not going to have the desired effect as soon as we need it.”
There also seems to be some scepticism surrounding electric cars. “If they work, for sure,” says Robin, donning his mirrored aviator-style sunglasses.
Tommy doesn’t think he would buy an EV. He reckons that even ten years from now they will still be too expensive. He is also convinced that the UK government will not reach its target of banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, and plug-in hybrids by 2035 (the Scottish government has a target of 2032).
“That whole 2035 deadline – that’ll never happen,” he says, continuing: “Whatever government is in place at that time, they will say, oh that was silly of the previous government, let’s not do it. ‘Cos that’s what happens every ******* time.”
When I tell them that EV sales in Norway are already exceeding 60 percent, they are surprised. “But Norway is a progressive country,” contends Abbie.
Tommy chips in that British people are very slow to adopt new things. “If their car doesn’t make a noise, they’ll think that’s weird and they won’t want it,” he says, with a sideways swipe at the residents of Milton Keynes for good measure.
There then ensues another animated conversation surrounding the relative merits of Norwegian society, which ends with Max asking: “How has public transport led us to discussing politics?”
It would be easy to assume a gender split in the thinking of this group, with two of the three boys seemingly more car aware than the rest, but that would be to over-simplify.
For these young people, as with most folk regardless of age, there are social perceptions, assumptions and preconceptions relating to cars as an artefact. The balance between nature and nurture here is difficult to pin down. However, to some extent, car awareness appears detached from the concept of transportation.
Right now at least, transportation is not high up on their agenda. It’s a means to facilitate an end. If we imagine that it will be another four or five years at least before most of these youngsters would be in a position to even think about car ownership, what options might there be by then?
Will car clubs and subscription models have established themselves as part of the “sharing economy”? Will Scottish and UK policymakers have made any progress in improvements to public transport infrastructures? Will fledgling active travel initiatives have developed further? Will the Scottish government’s idea of “15-minute communities” have moved off the drawing board and into practice? And will the new working practices prompted by the pandemic persist, or will we all have returned to the good old-fashioned commute?
And if we look just a little further to eight years from now, as we contemplate the last few months of sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK – will Tommy be proved right?
Photo and video credit: Elaine Catton