The proof of the pudding is in the eating: what is life like without your own car?

100 people from the canton of Bern wanted to find out just that, giving up their own cars for one month as part of the “31 days challenge”. We spoke to four participants who literally ventured into new territory.

18.08.2023

  • Lifestyle

Here’s the deal: you have to hand over your car keys for 31 days. In return, you receive an e-bike, a Trial GA Travelcard and a Mobility trial subscription, amongst other benefits. This is exactly what 100 people across the canton of Bern did in June as part of an experiment.

The idea behind the 31 days challenge originates from the Scouts’ National Jamboree and was put into practice by the “ÖV42 Consortium”. This consortium is made up of the SBB, the BLS, the Schweizerischen Südostbahn (SOB), PostBus Ltd, the canton of St. Gallen and the 42hacks cooperative. The latter specialises in helping more people make the switch from their own car to public transport. “We establish innovative and enterprising methods for encouraging people to switch from motorised private transport to alternative modes of transport, including public transport, in order to reduce unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions”, explains co-founder, Jessica Schmid. 

But what does life without your own car look like in practice? We wanted to find out, so we spoke to people who have taken the plunge – and accumulated rather different experiences in the process.

The Grassis: the freedom to discover something new

Andreas Grassi and his wife Katy Rhiner Grassi actually did it. They handed over their keys – and for good at that. During the 31 days challenge, they said goodbye to their Peugeot 208. After owning a car for 50 years, Andreas Grassi finally took the step that he and his wife had been considering for a while. “We originally wanted to give up the car at the end of the year”, the retired vocational school teacher explains. “But then we decided to use this challenge as an opportunity to just bite the bullet”. 

Those around them were all too quick to react, as Katy Rhiner Grassi reveals: “There were a lot of ‘but’ questions. ‘But how are you going to do it? But how are you going to get there? But what happens if...?’”. The truth is that, for every “but” question, the couple had an answer. Andreas Grassi explains: “As soon as you give up your car, your focus and the way you perceive your own mobility shifts”. 

For example, the couple have been travelling from their home in Thun to their holiday home in Ticino for many years. They generally take the Simplon Pass. “When you're driving, you're just focused on getting from A to B as quickly as possible”, Andreas Grassi adds. “In all the years, it never occurred to me to plan a stopover in Simplon village”. Having giving up their car, the couple looked into the public transport links for the first time. “Once we realised how good the links were along the route, we soon decided to do a stopover in Simplon. We are completely taken with this place. And we never would have discovered it if we’d taken the car”.

Andreas Grassi

Colette Kappes: to Chäs und Brot and back

Colette Kappes (38) lives with her family in a small village just outside the city of Bern, the wonderfully named Chäs und Brot (“cheese and bread”). And, as is the case in many rural areas, here a car is a standard accessory. Despite this – or maybe even because of this – Colette Kappes, her husband, their two children, their dog and their cat gave up their car for a month (although it should be said the cat was never particularly at home in the car). “We had lived in Bern city centre for a year previously and got on well without a car”, Colette Kappes explains. Since then, they had often entertained the thought of parting ways with their car. “The 31 days challenge was a great opportunity to see how that would play out in practice”. 

No sooner said than done. Her initial conclusions were positive. “Obviously the lovely weather made the e-bike a great option. “I’d like to try the experiment again in autumn/winter when the weather is less agreeable”. Alongside the e-bike, the family made use of public transport and Mobility’s car sharing service during the month-long experiment. They mainly used the latter to take their dog to obedience school. “If Mobility opened another station near to us, that would be the perfect addition”. 

Anyone who speaks to Colette Kappes gets the impression that the 31 days challenge sparked something in her and her family. And they'd be right: “After careful consideration, we have decided to say goodbye to our car”. At the end of July, their beloved old Volvo found a new owner. Congratulations!

Colette Kappes and family

Patrik Ritter: the e-bike revelation

Social media is full of rubbish, but, amongst all the nonsense, a Facebook ad for the 31 days challenge caught Patrik Ritter’s (39) eye. “I thought the idea was interesting and so I discussed it with my partner”. With little persuasion required, the pair took a leap of faith and stowed their VW Passat away for a whole month. 

For Patrik Ritter, using an e-bike proved a particularly positive experience. “The journeys to nursery with my son in the trailer were great fun – and the fitness aspect is a welcome knock-on effect”. What’s more, “the e-bike is ideal for running small errands as you don’t need to spend ages looking for a parking spot”.

Whilst the IT specialist works partly from home in Münsingen, his partner uses public transport and Mobility for work purposes. There is a lot to like about this combined mobility solution from Ritter’s point of view; he does, however, envisage challenges: “The practicality of having your own car is difficult to beat when you have a small child”.

The GA Travelcard is an interesting offer, but, as a small family, the amount of travelling they do is not currently enough for them to truly make the most of the offer. “What I did learn, though, is how to make more conscious decisions about which modes of transport I use and when”.

Patrik Ritter

So, is it worth it?

  • All 100 participants completed the ‘31days Challenge’ without their own car. 
  • 27 percent of the cars were sold during or after the Challenge. It means twelve households are completely car-free, while six have just one car instead of two.
  • A further 26 households are sticking with their own car but have purchased a Reka RAIL, an excursion pass or a GA travelcard.
  • Going forward, as a result of the Challenge, 90 percent said they would think before using their car or would use it less.

Interview on the digitalisation of mobility: “convenience is a decisive factor”

Thomas Sauter-Servaes is the Transportation Systems course directors at ZHAW School of Engineering. The mobility researcher has identified digitalisation as a huge opportunity to redistribute traffic in a sustainable way.

Thomas Sauter-Servaes, participants in the 31 days challenge responded positively when asked about their experience of the experiment. Many have even given up their cars for good. What will it take for more people to do the same?

Thomas Sauter-Servaes:  Convenience is a decisive factor. What’s great about cars is that they are the ultimate complexity reducers. Simply turn on your satnav and away you go – you hardly even need to think. All other alternatives require considerably more planning effort, both beforehand and during use. 

<br/> How can we reduce the effort involved in planning?

Thomas Sauter-Servaes: Maybe a crossover between Amazon’s Alexa and OpenAI systems like ChatGPT could be the answer: a personal mobility bot which can put together the best combination of transport options at any time based on my preferences. Tough decisions would be a thing of the past, as the software could book the best rates automatically and gently redirect me to avoid any traffic disruption.

<br/> Does the future of mixed mobility offers lie in even greater individualisation?

Thomas Sauter-Servaes: Digitalisation may offer us the chance to make the most of virtual mobility assistants which can tailor different options to our needs, without a noticeable increase in complexity. Users don’t need to know about all the calculations that go into establishing rates. However, the range of public transport and car sharing offers provided still needs to be good enough to generate attractive travel options that incorporate multiple modes of transport.

Thomas Sauter-Servaes, Transportation Systems course director at ZHAW School of Engineering

GoSimple: the go-ahead for a more simple life

Mobility will continue to support innovative projects designed to create a more sustainable society in the future. The latest project is waiting in the wings: in and around Basel, the GoSimple project is inviting households to try living more frugally and sustainably for five months. The plan is for participants to visit workshops and talks by experts, as well as take advantage of various opportunities for discussion, to make their everyday lives more simple, frugal and environmentally friendly. The project will address the subject of personal mobility behaviour alongside other topics like diet, consumption and stress reduction. The group programme begins in September; you can find more information here.

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