Car clubs coming to you?

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’:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Emotional Transport Tolls

We had to wait until just 20 hours before our flight to be sure we could get on a plane to see my family in the United States for the first time in almost 3 years. That’s a level of uncertainty and anxiety beyond any I’d experienced travelling before the pandemic. And because the trip was so important to me and my family, the uncertainty and anxiety bubbled away in the background for a good two months before we travelled as I tried to plan who we would see and when – assuming we got over at all.

In fact, I partially blame the uncertainty and anxiety for not only forgetting to write a blog for two months, but also for not even noticing I’d forgotten.

The added mental energy required to move around in recent months is not confined to aviation. Most forms of public transport (including commercial flights) have suffered from reduced passengers and have reduced frequencies as a result. Connections are trickier, finances are more fragile for both the operators and the passengers, and cancellations are common due to ongoing bouts of staff shortages.

Meanwhile, motorists have been facing fuel supply disruptions and price hikes on and off for nine months. No longer can it be assumed that petrol or diesel will be available or affordable when arriving at the pump. Nor should it be surprising that this uncertainty has sometimes resulted in panic-buying.

There have also been ever-increasing shortages, delays and uncertainties around buying or leasing a vehicle. The manufacture of microchips is lagging way behind demand, supply chains have been disrupted, and prices have been going up. There are even shortages of used cars, so their prices rise, but the price of buying a new car has gone up even more.

Moreover, if you’re hoping to switch to electric to minimise the fuel uncertainties, you may have a long wait. Some say that the auto market constraints currently caused by the microchip shortage are tiny compared to the much bigger limits the electric vehicle market will face due to the low availability of battery materials and components, and that we should all be looking for better alternatives.

Likewise, a recent news item on potential train worker strikes did not exactly give me confidence that the uncertainties of current services would be getting back on the rails any time soon.

There are other examples I could discuss, but not to put too fine a point on it, it is worth asking if anxiety and uncertainty is the new normal for medium- and long-distance travel. The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic has already taken a huge toll on people’s mental health over the past two years – what will be the impact of an ongoing emotional toll on transport?

Will it change how much people travel? Like most transport planners and researchers of travel behaviour, I know people’s travel behaviours and practices need to change, and change quickly, if we are going to have any chance of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. We need to reduce air travel and medium- to long-distance road travel. And yet, I’m not sure reducing such travel can really be seen as a silver lining to ongoing uncertainty and anxiety, even if it does have that effect (which it may not).

Financial tolls on those who can afford them are more sensible than emotional tolls on those who can’t. The way that our transport systems are structured in terms of tax and spend needs a massive re-think, but solutions are out there – from frequent flyer levies to road pricing to restructuring public transport ticketing to reflect changing work schedules. Taking clear, fair steps to make these changes would reduce uncertainty and anxiety, whilst still giving people the freedom to travel where and when they need to… even to see family abroad!

Recognising Recognition Justice

I am working on a major research project called ITEM: Inclusive Transition to Electric Mobility, where we review who uses electric mobility alongside whether the policies that are supposed to support us all to switch from fossil-fuel powered transport to electric options are socially just.

Now that we’ve had workshops with stakeholders in all four cities where we are conducting our research, it is clear that what we call the recognition aspect of social justice is the one least recognised.

In transport policy-making, distributional justice is usually part of appraising the problem and implementing solutions. Decision-makers often ask who living where suffers from local air pollution or who benefits from a new electric charging station or shared e-bike service. They might even ask whether it’s the same ‘who’.

Procedural justice is also fairly straightforward. Who participates in what gets done in a city and how meaningful is that participation? Officials working at various levels of government may not always involve other sectors and citizens as much as they could or would like to. They may not quite know how to make participation more meaningful, but they get the idea.

But recognition justice? Our participants hadn’t heard of it.

We all explained that it’s about recognising that different people need, want, value or expect different things at different times and for different purposes. And our participants understood, but rarely consider it explicitly. In fact, we could find questions about recognition justice in all our workshops – our participants just didn’t call it that.

Back in our first workshop in Bristol, there was a discussion about who used electric car clubs, for what purposes, and whether they were getting the service they actually wanted and expected. Could these shared vehicles meet the needs of both those who could not afford a car, particularly not an electric one, as well as those who could afford multiple cars, but wanted to reduce their car ownership? These are questions of recognition justice.

At the second workshop in Poznan, Poland, participants spoke not just about users of electric mobility, but also related industries. They considered how there would be automotive workers who needed re-training and other support. They asked how the experience of groups like these would fit with the promotion of environmental values and acceptance of regulations to encourage electric mobility. These are questions of recognition justice.

In Utrecht, the Netherlands, the participants wondered how to manage the rights to and use of public space when users of e-scooters or electric cars, for example, might expect to use that space differently than those on pedal bikes or parking a conventional vehicle. They asked how conflicts between users could be avoided to ensure no one felt excluded from the public spaces where they felt they had a right to be. These are questions of recognition justice.

In the Norwegian workshop, the participants noted that although electric cars are now easy to use around Oslo, that might not mean they are equally easy for everyone. They asked whether charging services, with their assorted infrastructure, pricing, and payment mechanisms (e.g. apps), were what all users might want and understand, or whether they could be seen as neither inclusive nor fair. These are questions of recognition justice.

So many questions of recognition justice, just as there are so many different needs, wants, values, rights and understandings to recognise. Our participants recognise that there are these differences, but may not yet have considered how to find out the detail of what they are and who holds them. As this project progresses, we will be seeking answers, and opening up yet another aspect of justice – ‘epistemic’ or that related to the creation and incorporation of knowledge.