Sharing my way out of car ownership

I’ve always enjoyed a trip to the tip. Clearing out the rubbish, piling it into the boot, driving 20 minutes and sorting it into ordered containers, I seem to leave with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.

So I was a little disappointed this week when I remembered I couldn’t use our car to take a few broken items to the dump in Islington. But I wasn’t ready to give up on driving just yet and, given a trip to Ikea was also due, I decided to try out a car club instead.

Car clubs provide access to shared, pay-as-you-drive vehicles, usually clustered on residential streets in cities. We used a car club for years before we had our first child. Aside from the annoyance of having to check and log damage (I once had to pay a large penalty for damage I hadn’t noticed) it was generally straightforward. We decided to get our own car because we assumed that lugging a baby, its paraphernalia and car seat to a vehicle a few streets away would be too troublesome. Looking back, we probably could have coped with a baby, but as more children came along and as the car seats got bigger and more awkward to store, a private car became increasingly useful.

So, for us, a car club deferred the purchase of a car. But could it persuade us to give up a car we already own?  The Carplus Annual Survey shows that across London in 2016/17 car club members sold or disposed around 26,400 cars. That’s great, but it’s a tiny proportion of the 2.6 million cars that are registered in the city. In 2016, 3.3 million additional vehicles were registered in the UK, which was the highest annual total ever recorded. If car clubs are to have a meaningful impact they must start winning over many, many more of these drivers.

My first test was availability and ease of use. It turned out there are a few car clubs operating in Hackney including Zipcar and Enterprise for round-trip bookings, plus Bluecity and DriveNow for one-way car sharing. Zipcar seemed to have the most cars near our house so I went for them.

Getting going was pretty straightforward. I started the registration process in the evening and by 8.30am the following morning my application was approved. Thirty minutes later I had booked a van and was on my way to pick it up. It turned out the van located on my street was busy, but there was another a 10-minute walk away, which didn’t seem too bad for a spur-of-the-moment booking (there were plenty more cars much closer to my house and more vans available the following day). Checking for damage was still an annoyance but once that was done and my phone connected via Bluetooth, I was off.

The car club didn’t fare so well on my second test: price. I chose a basic membership with a free joining fee. To hire the van (on a weekday) it cost £50 for five hours, plus a £15 monthly fee to reduce my insurance liability to zero. This seemed like a lot and matched the amount I spent in Ikea that day. (A Volkswagen Golf would have cost £9 an hour.)

Zipcar points out that the service is more cost effective than car ownership once you factor in the costs of repairs, depreciation, insurance, servicing and parking. I’m sure this is true. The difference is that when you hop in your own car to go to the dump it feels like a ‘free’ trip.

But the answer can’t be to lower car sharing prices. You wouldn’t want the same impact that Uber has had, dramatically cutting costs and thereby increasing the use of taxis in cities. In fact, I’d say the pay-per-use fee is the car club’s most powerful feature, forcing customers to justify each car journey and weigh up the alternatives. This experience forced me to accept that I don’t need to drive this sort of journey. I can pay the council to pick up my bulky waste, take a train to Ikea and hire a taxi back, or better still buy online.

Another option could be to encourage car owners to sell up with some serious, but short-term, incentives. Then once customers were registered and changing travel habits they’d start to enjoy the longer-term benefits of not owning a car.

A 2015 report by the Car Club Coalition suggested councils offer residents parking permit surrender incentives such as free or discounted car club membership or mileage. But why not six months, why not a year of free membership? This could be funded by the car club for gaining new customers and enabled by the council through better parking provision and promotion.

Other incentives suggested could be linked to public transport use; graduated parking permit charges for multiple vehicles in a household; and scrappage schemes. I’d love to know if any council or car club operator is offering such policies yet. I certainly can’t find any evidence of any.
Councils must also do more to enable car clubs to build scale in order to entice customers. They must allocate more parking spaces to car clubs and these spaces must be in convenient locations linked to the transport network and cycle storage facilities. Clearer signage will also advertise the service.

At the moment car clubs seem to be a relatively boutique service for those already sold on cutting car use. If they want to appeal to the driving mainstream, councils need to take them more seriously. Rather than be treated as a token, or an add-on, they need to be a fundamental part of a strategy to reduce car ownership and increase active travel.

Giving up our unloved yet beloved car

I’ll admit to a love-hate relationship with my car. The hate part is easier for me to rationalise: the evidence is clear that cars are destroying our environment; taking control of public space; and killing and injuring far too many people.

The love part, however, is a guilty secret. Despite the fact that we rarely use it[1], the car has become part of our family world – my husband and children have devised a song about it; we have become fond of its technical idiosyncrasies; we moan about its smells and crumbs but they are ours; and once the doors are shut, this is our universe, with our stuff, our music and our conversations.

But I’m convinced that I’ve been duped into this way of thinking. Billions have been invested over the last century selling the car as a symbol of status, desire, freedom and necessity. As soon as we earn enough money, or as soon as we have children, there’s an assumption that we should get a car. And once we have it, it becomes very difficult to give it up.

Surely it is time for city dwellers to think differently. Surely we can discover greater freedom and happiness when walking or cycling the city, or switching off on public transport. Surely we can gain economic freedom by selling our cars altogether and greater enjoyment of our public spaces if we free them of parked cars.

Yet I have the feeling London isn’t ready for this shift. I’m mindful that there aren’t enough incentives for families to sell their cars; that public transport over longer distances is too expensive; that the car will always beat other options if it’s parked outside the house on a rainy day; that hiring or sharing cars is still too troublesome; and finding a hire car equipped with three children’s car seats (that we as a family need) is not always straightforward.

But maybe I’m wrong. To see if we can cope without this safety net, my family is going to give up its car for the rest of 2017. If we survive, we’ll sell up in the new year. We’ll test out public transport over longer distances, car sharing, and new types of car hiring. We’ll analyse the costs, the effort and the pinch points where the car is hard to beat.

The first test comes this weekend for a trip to the countryside for a wedding and a stay with (grand)parents in Gloucestershire. Before children, I always made this journey on public transport, but this will be the first time we tackle it as a family. Our assumption has always been the train would be too expensive and too troublesome with three children in tow. But let’s see.

[1] It’s brought out for visits to family in the countryside; trips to the zoo or the seaside; the odd trip to the dump; the occasional trip to Westfield; and a couple of camping excursions every year.