UK car clubs take off

Posted: 22 October 2007

Emissions from transport are currently responsible for around 25 per cent of the UK's total carbon dioxide output, but a national network of car clubs in the UK could save an extra 115,000 tonnes of CO2 annually by 2010, according to the UK Energy Research Centre.

The UK currently has around 42 car clubs running in 37 towns and cities, using a total fleet of 1000 cars. The total estimated membership is rising fast: currently close to 40,000, it is likely to double in the next twelve months. Carplus, a national charity that promotes responsible car use through the development of car clubs and car sharing, estimates that there will be 1 million users of car clubs by 2015.

Car club parking bay
Car club parking bay
Car club parking bay, Islington, North London. Credit: Streetcar
Growth has been particularly strong in the capital where support from London borough councils for the development of car clubs has been an important factor, and their development elsewhere in the country has so far been haphazard.

There are now four major operators in the UK: City Car Club, WhizzGo, Streetcar, and ZipCar, an American car club that has recently entered the London market. These have each been started by entrepreneurs and funded by venture capital firms.

Reducing vehicle usage

Car-sharing using ‘car clubs’ is a successful way of reducing vehicle usage and ownership amongst those who join, and has proven to be effective in several countries. Car clubs have been shown to reduce members' mileage by an average of 50% compared to pre-membership levels. They do this by making the cost of car use more transparent and by encouraging members to plan trips in advance.

This reduction occurs as a result of members transferring to other transport modes such as public transport, walking or cycling. In the UK, the average car owner drives 13,438 km per year, emitting 2.246 tonnes of carbon dioxide. After joining a car club, reducing mileage by 50 per cent and using a newer, more efficient car, this figure would be reduced to 0.87 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

New technology

Club car key release
Club car key release
Club car key release. Credit: Streetcar
Car clubs work on the principle of individual members having access to a group of cars in their neighbourhood that are shared with other people, and that are charged for by the time used and distance travelled. The development of car clubs over the last few years has been assisted by the growth of modern technology, most notably the growth of internet access and mobile phones, which gives them advantages over informal car sharing or one-off liftshare organisations. Members can book a car online or over the phone, as little as 30 seconds ahead of time, and use remotely activated smartcards to unlock the vehicle. At the end of the journey, the car is returned to a dedicated car club parking space.

Members pay a small one-off or annual registration fee, then pay by the hour, day or weekend at prices starting at £3.95 per hour, plus a mileage charge which includes fuel costs. The cars they use are small, modern, low-emission models.

As well as being a cost effective option, it also has a compelling environment record. Independent research conducted by Transport for London shows that each car club vehicle on the road replaces an average of 20 privately-owned cars. This is because each car has an average of 40 users and, of those, over half chose not to buy (or replace) a car when they join the club. The scheme has already taken at least 10,000 cars off the streets, and this is set to rise to 75,000 by 2012.

Car club car on Capitol Hill
Car club car on Capitol Hill
Club car on Capitol Hill, Washington DC. Credit: Zipcar
Car clubs in their modern form began in Switzerland in the late 1980s: in 1993, there were around 3,000 car sharers in Switzerland, while by May 2006 the membership had risen to 65,000 people sharing approximately 1,750 vehicles at 1000 locations in over 400 communities across the country.. Other successful schemes are in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. By 2007 car clubs in European cities had a total membership of more than 230,000. Car-dependent North America has followed Europe’s example with successful car clubs in more than 60 cities in the USA and Canada and a combined membership of over 83,000.