Skip to main content

Car Sharing

Traffic jams, lack of urban parking spaces, high maintenance costs and reduced job security are starting to make car ownership less appealing, especially within inner-city areas. Fewer young people are getting driving licences year on year and more are starting to prioritise ownership of the latest mobile technology over a car.

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 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. Several of the companies covered in the car guide 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 created a £1 million fund, via Carplus, for the extension of the ‘Developing Car Clubs in England’ programme.

Commercial opportunity for car shares

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.

Other non-corporate scheme help reward those who share their cars. A recent article on this newer model of car sharing highlights how car owners who are under-using their car can benefit financially from joining specific car share clubs. 

Car share jargon buster

Car club

An ‘operator’ (for-profit, not-for-profit or co-operative) provides a network of cars for use by car club ‘members’. The operator maintains the cars and manages the process for reserving and accessing cars. Members pay a fee to have independent access to cars, often 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

2+ car sharing

This is essentially formal hitchhiking! Drivers advertise a planned route and fill spare seats through web-based matching. Liftshare and GoCarshare are the two biggest operators in the UK. One million trips are currently shared in the UK through Liftshare every month.

Back-to-base car club

Cars have home locations where users can pick them up and drop them back. This model dominates car sharing in the UK, with operators including Co-wheels, Zip Car, City Car Club, E-Car Club and other independent operators and community schemes. Currently 188,105 members use 3,275 cars in back-to-base car clubs.

Free floating car club

Cars can be parked in any available approved parking place in a designated area. This may include pay-and-display or resident parking bays. Users identify available cars in real time – using the web or a mobile app. The car is reserved, used and parked in a designated area. BMW’s Drive Now scheme in London uses this model.

Peer-to-peer car share

Car owners rent out their own vehicles to other local drivers. easyCar Club is the only formal nationwide peer-to-peer car sharing scheme in the UK at present, with 15,000 members in the club and 1,500 vehicles available for rental throughout the UK.

Transport hierarchy and car dependency

As we move towards environmental tipping points, there is a growing interest in reducing car dependency, reducing private ownership of cars, and shifting the bulk of transporting people and goods to cleaner modes of transport.

The transport hierarchy places walking, wheels and public transport above the car, and particularly the traditional internal combustion engine (ICE).

Our transport hierarchy article outlines the carbon impacts of different modes of transport. Cars have higher carbon emissions than most other forms of transport, and so we need to wean ourselves off them if we are to reduce carbon emissions enough to keep to 1.5C rise in global temperatures.

Unfortunately, the direction of travel up to now has been an increase in household access to at least one car - from 8% to 35% since the early 1970s. Alongside this there has been an increase in distance travelled, and an increase in the share by private vehicle. In 1952, people in the UK travelled 218 billion passenger kilometres a year and 30% of this distance was attributed to travel by private vehicle; by 2019, 86% of the 364 billion km travelled was attributed to travel by private vehicle.

Car sharing may be one route to take to try to reverse these trends.

Car share resources

Become a subscriber today

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. A wealth of data at your fingertips.

From only £29.95 for 12 months web access and the print magazine. Cancel via phone or email within 30 days for a full, no-questions-asked refund!

Start your subscription - find out more