Car Clubs: what’s in it for cyclists?

This article was published in 2007, in Newsletter 71.

Well you could sell your car, (I’ll keep my old VW camper) and get all the benefits for lots less money. Perhaps as important, why should cyclists who don’t own a car, and don’t find the need for one, support these schemes?

But first, let’s explain what we mean by a car club. The first car clubs were just groups of people who got together and ‘shared’ a single car, and these existed some 25 years ago. Today things are more sophisticated, and many are run by commercial organisations.

Users, after joining a club, have to do little except book the car, probably over the Internet, and may have a ‘smartcard’ that gives access to the car. Such clubs exist in places such as Brighton, Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol and several parts of London, and some of them offer a choice of car size according to your need. A first ‘commercial’ car club in Cambridge is proposed for the Romsey area, and others are suggested as parts of ‘Travel Planning’ for developments on the fringe of the city. They need to be tied to a very local area, preferably within easy walking distance, but that could be extended in Cambridge if secure cycle parking co-existed with the parking for the car club cars.

What is the experience elsewhere and how will this help in Cambridge?

Each car club usually replaces about six private cars.

Firstly it has been found that each club car usually replaces about six private cars. We know that many people in Cambridge who own a car do not use it for daily trips, as they cycle or walk, but just use it for ‘essential’ trips. Walk down a typical Cambridge terraced street, after a frosty or snowy day (we did have one this year!) and you’ll be surprised how many cars clearly have not been moved in 24 hours. Now just imagine all those streets with five out of every six of those cars removed!

Secondly it has been found that people who join a car club reduce the miles they drive. This is because it removes the temptation to drive for trips that can be made easily by walking, cycling or public transport. It also means you pay almost the ‘full cost’ of each trip at the time of trip, rather than paying for insurance, tax, (depreciation), etc and only considering the cost as ‘fuel’. So you better understand the true cost of your trip.

Both these are, of course, benefits even to ‘non-users’ as our streets would be clearer of parked cars, and fewer cars would be clogging up and polluting our roads.

For users the benefits must in the main be financial. If you do less than about 6 000 miles per year yet run a newish car you are likely to gain (just think of no car loan, or extra money in the bank). Some suggest savings of £1,500 per annum . Even for those of us with older cars, but who do fewer miles, there can be gains. With no tax or insurance to pay up front, low mileage users are still likely to benefit, especially if they further reduce their car use. They also get the benefit of the use of a more modern reliable car for those trips they do make.

So are there any problems? Clearly this isn’t a solution for the 20 000 miles per year driver, and isn’t likely to appeal to the sort of person who regards ‘his’ car as an extension of his personality. Unfortunately there are other problems. Where there is a shortage of parking, there can be resistance to the ‘stealing’ of spaces for a specific scheme, and clearly each club car does need a specific space on or off road to which it can be returned for the next user. This is especially true in zones with ‘Residents Parking Permits’. If these objections can be overcome in the short term, perhaps even people who continue to own a car and park it on the street will see the benefits, as others give up their cars and join a scheme, leaving free spaces on the road most of the time.

Come on, support car clubs, and reclaim the streets for cyclists.

Jim Chisholm