Nick Lester-Davis: Car sharing can help London on its way to having fewer cars

Nick Lester-Davis: Car sharing can help London on its way to having fewer cars

It is generally accepted that London, like all big cities, needs less traffic, which generally means it needs fewer cars. Most cities have tried many ways to make public transport and active travel more attractive. There have been some successes, but they’ve been a bit limited.

Journeys at peak times to popular destinations have transferred from cars to buses, rail, bike or walking, but, outside of these periods of the day, the temptation for a car owner to use their car usually proves to be too great. While such car journeys don’t necessarily produce an immediate impact, they do add to overall air pollution and problems caused by residential car parking. The time has come to tackle car ownership, not just car use.

Purists say people should simply give up their cars. They are right that, for the overwhelming majority of journeys, those that did would find good alternatives which, in some cases, are both quicker and cheaper than using their car. But it is a very big step for a long-standing car owner to take.

There are always a few journeys for which a car is distinctly better than the other options: collecting granny to come over for Sunday lunch, for example; or taking a whole load of rubbish to the tip; or an emergency trip to A&E at two in the morning. Whether you actually make any such trips or not is almost irrelevant. Just thinking you might have to is often enough to tip the balance towards continuing to own a car.

The same type of thinking also influences car owners’ choice of vehicle. Most car journeys are made with just the driver inside and little or no luggage. Of the rest, most are with just one passenger. So why doesn’t everyone who really thinks they need to own a car in the city have just a mini or something similar?

Again, it’s the “what if” issue. What if I want to take the family and the dog to the beach? What if I want to dispose of an old fridge? The size of car bought is governed by a wish to cover every possible need, including extremely rare events. The same type of thinking – about infrequent occasions where a car is essential – makes it quite hard for people to think about giving up their cars entirely. The “what-iffery” gets in the way.

But there is a halfway house in the form of car clubs. If you need a car, you can find one without the bother and expense of actually owning one. Instead, you rent them by the minute, hour or day, collecting them from local parking spaces. Moreover you can choose from different cars to suit the needs of the occasion – a smart saloon to pick up granny for Sunday lunch; a big estate for taking an old fridge to the tip; a people carrier for taking the family, friends and the dog to the beach for the day. Giving up car ownership is much easier if you know there’s a car to hand when you really need one.

The fear, of course, is that because car clubs can be joined by current non-car owners to use, you might end up with more car use rather than less, as people who previously used public transport or active travel all the time switch to a car club car because it’s easily available without the hassle of ownership.

But using a car club vehicle is not free and the cost of a car trip is almost always more expensive than using the bus or the Tube and certainly dearer than walking or cycling. So to switch your trip from going by bike to using a car means paying more. You’ll do it if you have to, but if you end up doing it routinely, you’ll become a car owner before long in any case.

The figures bear this out. Car clubs put cars on the street according to the local number of members – the more members, the more cars. Every car club car in London, according to Department for Transport research quoted by shared transport modes advocates CoMoUK, replaces 23.5 privately owned cars.

Every car club member uses public transport, walks and cycles more than the national average. And while a quarter of car club members in London say they have joined because they couldn’t afford to own a car, three quarters could afford to but chose not to. The additional car trips made by those who couldn’t afford to own a car are quite eclipsed by those avoided by people who no longer own one.

Moreover, car club cars tend to be newer and cleaner. Eleven per cent of the London car club fleet is electric and all the vehicles are less than five years old, compared to an average car age of 8.5 years. Thus, pollution levels are down for those car journeys that remain.

The provision of taxis and even Ubers moves things in the same direction. You might not want use them to pick up granny or take the family to the beach, but you might prefer them for some journeys for which public transport provision is poor. Hospital or hospitality workers doing an evening shift may be able to get to work by public transport, but getting home at midnight or 2.00 or 3.00 in the morning may be a lot less easy, if it’s possible at all. The same goes, in reverse, for shifts that start at 6.00 or 7.00 a.m.

It is argued that such needs make owning a car essential. But if there’s a one-way car club or even a good supply of taxis or Ubers, they can make such small hours journeys possible, with public transport doing the other leg.

Research in the USA suggests that Uber use essentially takes trips away from public transport. But the methodology adopted for that work leads to misleading results. In essence, Uber passengers have simply been asked how they would make their trip if Uber was not available. Hardly surprisingly, public transport is the main answer.     Hence, it is concluded that the more Uber trips, the less public transport trips.  

But the researchers don’t ask about the overall travel patterns and changes to car ownership. If a person has stopped owning a car and replaced two-thirds or three-quarters (or maybe more) of their previous car trips by public transport, that is a big net gain, even if the remaining trips are done by car club car, taxi or Uber.

Car clubs are not a panacea. They don’t solve all of a city’s transport problems and they are not for everyone. But they do provide a useful stepping stone for people as they move away from car ownership. And as former car owners start to realise just how much cheaper transportation has become and how much fitter they are because of walking and cycling, they travel less and less by car without feeling any pain. Winners all round.

Nick Lester-Davis is a consultant on traffic, parking and other transport issues and a former Corporate Director of Services at London Councils. Follow Nick on Twitter. Image from GLA.

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Categories: Comment


  1. Cezary Bednarski says:

    Public transport should be free at the point of use, as it already is a number of cities. The drop in passenger numbers in London due to covid offers a good opportunity for this to be implemented. Other than that – I had the privilege to have been invited to pose the first question to Sadiq Khan the London mayor, during the LBC State of London Debate ( )
    Reducing pollution is critical but the way ULEZ extension has been set up is socially divisive.
    It will hit most those that cannot afford to upgrade their cars, and those that use their cars little, as I do. Wealthy drivers would not be bothered by £15 per day and will carry on driving their tractors day in day out. Those that can afford a Tesla or such like will be fine.
    I have a car that I drive twice a week, or so, short distances, one for shopping. It would cost me £30 per week. A driver that drives for several hours every day will also pay £15 per day. How is this blanket social injustice going to be addressed?”

    Disappointingly, but maybe typically, both the mayor as well as his deputy for transport, totally disregarded the point about the fact that a person that used the car for 15 minutes per day will be hit with the same £15 charge as the person that drives 20 hours per day, i.e. produces 80 times more pollution All politicians seem the same…
    What hope ?

  2. Guy Lambert says:

    To rent a parking space in my area costs anything from £100 to nearly £200 per month- say £1500 PA. Parking on the street, a facility provided by the council/taxpayer is free of charge in some places and less than £100 pa for a first vehicle where there is a CPZ.

    There is a very reasonable argument that car ownership is thus subsidised by the council tax payer, though it would be a brave politician who made it!

    I have had a car since I was 17 and would be very loath to give it up, despite the fact that I cycle practically everywhere in London and use a car perhaps once a fortnight.
    We also have very inequitable planning policies in my borough (I doubt this is unique) such that, except in the very outer London areas where there is less pressure, if you live in a building constructed before about 2000 you will be able to access convenient (street) parking for £100 pa or less.

    If your property was constructed between say 2000 and 2015 and you are a freeholder or leaseholder, you will likely have an opportunity to lease or buy a parking space, probably in an underground garage, but if you’re a tenant you are unlikely to have any parking provision at all. If the property went through planning after about 2015 you are very unlikely to have any parking provision even if you’re a free/leaseholder, unless you can qualify for or wangle a Blue Badge.

    There is also a very dubious impact on the street scene, where residential roads throughout London have become – over the last 50 or so years – turned over to the relatively new function as a car warehouse. This fate has also befallen many front gardens. I am making a practical and aesthetic point here – ecology is another dimension.

    I believe cars cover an average of 8000 miles a year. If they average 25mph when moving, that would mean for about 50 of each 52 weeks they are sitting in that publicly funded warehouse known as the street. You know it makes sense.

  3. MilesT says:

    The high accident excess charges for most car clubs can be seriously bad for your finances, and this discourages uptake from poorer demographics (as does subscription fees).

    Excess protection insurance is hard to find for car clubs (and expensive) and nonexistent for peer to peer.

    For traditional rental cars, excess protection with full damage reimbursment is available for around £40 pa; for car clubs the only available policies are twice that with worse clauses.

    Therefore I will continue to prefer traditional rental car provision..and expanding/decarbonising that needs policy support.

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