Many people have long believed that the way forward for cities to manage their transport is to get people out of their cars and on to public transport, their bikes or their feet. This reduces congestion and pollution and improves travellers’ health, as well as usually being lighter on their wallets. This way forward has now become the accepted approach for cities as tackling pollution and congestion rise up the political agenda. But just how realistic is this in practice?
Even though giving up a car will generally result in savings for city based households, it requires a high degree of altruism for most people to abandon a car entirely. As with the choice of car, people will think about their extreme uses – even though these rarely come about. So households will buy a large estate car, thinking about the time the whole family, with the dog, the deckchairs and the beach balls, go down to the seaside for the day and ignore the fact that for the remainder of the year it’s normally just one person driving a much larger car than they need through the city. In the same way, while people may think that they can do their normal journeys – to work or to the shops – without a car, the occasional needs such as the need to shift an attic full of unwanted goods to the tip or the need to get to a hospital quickly in the middle of the night, leave many households fearing to do without a car entirely. Of course, having then bought a car it gets used for all sorts of other journeys because of its convenience and, more importantly, because the investment in the car represents sunk costs and the marginal cost of driving is relatively low.
This is where car sharing through car clubs can make such an important contribution. A car remains available for the urgent or exceptional trip but the family doesn’t have to own it. The fact that a car share car is paid per trip on the basis of average costs, rather than marginal costs gives an immediate comparison with public transport or active travel costs and with no large capital payment up front, users can decide which mode to use on a trip by trip basis. The result is that car club members travel far more by public transport, bike or on foot and far, far less by car than typical car owning households. Moreover, for every new car club car on the streets between 10 and 12 cars are disposed of by car club members as well as some more where the purchase is deferred. Car club members also see a big reduction in their costs of transport.
There is often expressed concern that the availability of cars on the street will encourage non-car owning households – the majority of households in inner London, for example – to use a car where previously they would have used public transport or active travel. And this does happen to a certain extent, but not to the degree that takes away the net effect being a big reduction in car use. The fact that the cost per trip by car sharing is still significantly higher than by public transport means that a big switch would be very expensive for households who have not previously used cars. Car Plus’ annual surveys of car club members now give enough data to show this in a reliable way and we can be confident of the outcomes.
Car sharing, therefore, represents a half-way point between car owning and doing away with the car entirely, making the switch less daunting for those used to having a car available. And as they use walking cycling and public transport more many will discover that they actually need to use a car less and less.
This is all good news for cities. Not only do they see a modal transfer in favour of active travel and public transport, but those car trips that remain are likely to be carried out by newer and smaller cars with much less pollution. Reduced car ownership levels also free up city streets for better purposes. Munich has adopted the policy that where a car is given up in favour of car sharing, the parking space is converted to another use – bike or bus priority or just an environmental improvement. Embracing car sharing should now be at the heart of every city’s transport policies.
Nick Lester-Davis is a noted urban transport strategist, particularly with respect to traffic and parking. Until 2016 he had worked for many years on London's transport strategies, most recently as London Councils' Corporate Director for Services. He is also Vice-Chair of ERTRAC, the European technology platform for road transport.