Should we ban cars?

This week the Guardian ran a piece on the ten best hostels and lodges that can only be reached by foot. Surprisingly to me and another reader they neglected Black Sail hut in the Lake District but included Glen Affric in Scotland.

More interesting than that oversight, another reader commented that “the Youth Hostels Association was founded on hostels for people to visit on foot or by bike … but modern times have degraded that ideal and one can now turn up in a car.”

The myth that youth hostels were founded for people to visit on foot or by bike is still alive even after so much time. So, let’s put the record straight. As always the true story is a little more complex than anyone might like.

The first meetings to set up youth hostels rejected the idea of restricting youth hostels to walkers and cyclists and insisted youth hostels would be open to anyone.

But in 1934 the young organisation outlined its intention that youth hostels would be for those who walked or cycled. They didn’t say youth hostels were only for people who walked and cycled.

The handbook of that year stated, as a fourth regulation, youth hostels were “intended for members when walking or cycling and are not open to motorists or motor-cyclists (unless they are using the hostel for the purpose of walking or cycling. In any case motor-cars and motor-cycles must not be garaged at a hostel.)”

By 1936 it had become rule six and the wording was more specific; “hostels are intended for the use of members when walking or cycling and not when motoring or motor-cycling. Motor-cars and motor-cycles must not be garaged or parked at a hostel.”

Despite the vagueness of the rule – the rule didn’t ban anyone arriving by car and going walking, cycling or climbing, so long as she or he didn’t expect to leave the car at the hostel. The rule in effect was about parking cars at hostels though that didn’t stop wardens stopping people from staying if they thought they were using a car or even worse, hitchhiking! The myth became established. Youth hostels were for walkers and cyclists.

By 1962 the rule had become controversial. The whole thing was becoming hypocritical as people were hiding their cars and then walking to arrive at a hostel.  When the national executive proposed withdrawing the rule, the ensuing outcry forced them to withdraw the proposal.

The rule remained in place until members forced change by sheer numbers. Members arriving at youth hostels by car parked them nearby, blocking surrounding roads and disrupting villages and small towns. Stratford-on-Avon reported particular problems.

National council, YHA’s supreme body at the time, carried a motion by 69 votes to 30 to allow car parking at youth hostels where there was no alternative in 1968. Council had finally accepted the parking of cars at youth hostels because they had no other choice.

The 1973 handbook simply stated that youth hostels would no longer exclude anyone by reason of their mode of transport. Motor car use overwhelmed the principle against them and after 42 years the rule went.  Given that YHA has been around for 86 years this year – 87 if you count the beginning as being in 1929 – it was there for less than half YHA’s life.

I have little love for cars but I doubt banning cars is or ever was the right way to go.

What I don’t doubt is that some of the best experiences youth hostels offer are at those hostels you have to hike to reach. Great to see that others think the same, enough for the Guardian to run an article on hostels and lodges around the world.

I’ve devoted a chapter to youth hostels and rules in Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world – a lot more information than I can include here!

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