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.
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