Car clubs fascinate me.
Whilst still cars, car club vehicles are used much more intensively, and the people who use them travel less intensively. It is not a different mode of travel, but car club members use different modes of travel more: they walk, cycle, and ride on buses and trains more often than they drive. The vehicles are more likely to be electric and produce fewer emissions than the average private car. Sharing cars saves space and reduces congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. CoMoUK, the national charity for the public benefit of shared transport, publishes reports on the many benefits of car clubs.
But car clubs also frustrate me. Why? Since car clubs are often designed for those with a car-lite, multimodal lifestyle in mind, they’re rarely found in places where people are most car-dependent nor are necessarily available to people who have the fewest options for getting around.
Let me explain. Most car clubs in the UK are run commercially – they need to be financially viable. Also, the most common model is ‘back-to-base’, which involves a dedicated parking bay on street or in a parking area for each car club vehicle, often requiring a long-term agreement with the local highways authority or workplace or housing estate / developer. Therefore, car club operators want their cars where they will attract customers and be valued by the landowner and local community for some years. Such places tend to be in denser urban areas, or in the car parks owned by larger businesses and institutions, usually where there is a better-educated if not wealthier population who are seeking a more flexible, greener and healthier lifestyle.
This is a bit of a simplification, and CoMoUK has information on all the types of car clubs as well as the less well-known and studied peer-to-peer car sharing options operational in the UK. And as they put it to policy-makers, a shared car is quite simply not the same as a privately-owned car. Car sharing should be supported in transport strategies.
I agree with them, but I also wonder whether a shared car in a dense urban area where people have good public transport can have as much impact as a shared car in a suburb or smaller town with minimal public transport? The latter places contribute to climate change too. They suffer from congestion and air pollution and too many cars taking up too much public space.
But if car sharing were available in smaller settlements, would people give up as many privately-owned cars for shared ones, would they would walk and cycle more, and most importantly, would they provide enough business to make a car club or other car sharing arrangement viable?
There are three recent trends that suggest the answers could be ‘yes’:
- Driving Electric: People don’t have to live in dense urban areas to be unable to afford to purchase an electric vehicle, or to not have a place at home to charge it, or to feel motivated by the climate crisis to want to switch sooner rather than later. Working with CoMoUK, I have gathered some evidence of the extra opportunities for electric car sharing in this publication.
- Digital Accessibility: Since the pandemic, more people are working flexibly and from home, do not need to use their privately-owned cars to commute, and often live in suburbs and smaller towns. More people are ordering goods and groceries online. Car sharing fits well with flexibility and less frequent essential trips. Good public transport links may no longer be a prerequisite.
- Informal Options: People have been sharing cars with friends and family for a long time, but there are now digital platforms that support informal car sharing between community groups, neighbours or even strangers. These offer ways to car-share that don’t have the same fixed costs or location, and can meet more diverse needs in more places.
Research is clearly required – CoMoUK staff and I are keen to take our collaboration forward to find the evidence to help car sharing come to you, wherever you live.