Cracks are starting to appear in our car regime, creating the opportunity for a cultural shift towards a more sharing economy. Innovation within the car share sector is taking advantage of these cracks, offering a number of different car share models such as back-to-base; free floating and peer-to-peer car sharing (See our Car share jargon buster below).
According to the 2014/2015 Carplus Annual Survey: “Car Clubs are no longer seen as an ‘alternative’ option, but rather a common sense approach for getting from A to B that complements walking, cycling and public transport”.
Furthermore, “Market observers such as Frost and Sullivan predict a further tenfold rise in car club membership by 2020, based on an expanding range of car sharing models”.
Could the days of car ownership be numbered?
Up-scaling car sharing
The increasing popularity of formal car share schemes appears to have come about for practical rather than environmental reasons. This has resulted in a diverse range of consumers (and businesses) embracing the movement, rather than your usual environmentally-concerned suspects.
In fact, car clubs are dominated by the 25-44 year old age group, with affluent ‘Metropolitan High Flyers’ being the primary users in London. Main motives for joining a car club in London include convenience and cost. 
Car manufacturers and car rental firms are starting to recognise this social, and potentially, profitable trend towards car access rather than ownership. Approximately 57% of the companies covered in this car report have set up trial car share schemes for market research purposes, or have launched car share schemes in cities that have embraced alternative transport.
BMW has launched the Drive Now car share scheme in London in partnership with Sixt;ZipCar was bought by Avis in 2013, and recently Enterprise, one of the largest car rental firms, acquired City Car Club. The Department for Transport has also shown commitment to scaling up the car share industry through its £1 million funding, via Carplus, for the extension of the ‘Developing Car Clubs in England’ programme.
This commercial interest in the car share sector is exciting as it presents an opportunity to scale up more sustainable lifestyle practices. Long-term benefits of car club membership, as highlighted in Carplus’s 2014/15 Annual Report, include:
- reduced car ownership (with only 20% of long-term car club members owning a car compared to almost half before joining);
- increased use of a wider range of transport methods such as cycling, public transport and walking; and reduced overall car use. (Car club members on average drive 37% less after joining a car club).
- In addition, car clubs tend to embrace low-emission hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles, resulting in additional carbon reductions. On average, British car club vehicles produce 33% less CO2 per kilometre than the average British car.
On the other hand, the notion that an environmental and community-driven movement can only be scaled up through corporate buy-in, as has happened in other ethical markets, is disconcerting.
How will this impact the culture and ethos of car sharing?
Chas Ball, the founder of Smart Moves, which went on to become City Car Club, commented: “I have mixed feelings as the founder of City Car Club (1999). To persuade a lot of people to move away from car ownership to a portfolio of mobility options in which the car (shared) is one part, may require the input of the bigger players, but it will depend how much they retain their distinctive car club culture”.
He added, “Cambio (a long established German operator) shows how a for-profit company can be very close to its members, retain a low-cost model and grow whilst remaining independent. The car-sharing ethos in Zipcar is distinct from the rental culture of its parent Avis Budget – it’s more of a club. That ethos, with good customer service, can engender more of a sense of belonging in which cars are better looked after and people are more considerate about other members. Whether the car club ethos prevails at City Car Club once it is fully incorporated into Enterprise is not yet clear.”
In addition, for-profit car share schemes appear to be naturally gravitating towards high density urban areas – where there is more money to be made through frequent use. The benefits of car sharing are therefore not equally accessible to all, and issues of transport equality and poverty are raised.
Not-for-profit car share
Alistair Kirkbride, Executive Director of Carplus, suggested that this is where the not-for-profit operators have a role in the car share sector.
“The independent community sector, from where car sharing came, is getting more organised with setting up operations in places that aren’t priorities for the commercial sector. This sector will play, and is playing, an important role in making sure the benefits of car sharing are realised by all, and roughly splits into independent community-led operations in specific locations, and Community Interest Companies (CIC) at a national or regional scale. Co-wheels and Co Cars are two Community Interest Companies whose purpose is to support the independent community movement. This often means that they will attempt to operate in areas where more profitable locations can be used to support cars in areas that are less viable – especially in the short term.”
This not-for-profit sector is arguably the bearer of the ethical approach to car sharing.