Ruth Brandon: Get rid of your car and enjoy driving

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Indy Lifestyle Online

City-based car owners find themselves in a bind. Not only does it take forever to get anywhere (emitting CO2 and other ghastly poisons as you go), but when you do get there, you can't park. You can't park again when you get back home; and when finally you do get lucky, you can only hope passing punks will leave your vehicle alone.

City-based car owners find themselves in a bind. Not only does it take forever to get anywhere (emitting CO2 and other ghastly poisons as you go), but when you do get there, you can't park. You can't park again when you get back home; and when finally you do get lucky, you can only hope passing punks will leave your vehicle alone.

One possibility is not to own a car, use public transport and taxis, and rent when necessary. This does wonders for peace of mind, and the amount of money it saves is spectacular. But if you have a family, or live far from the city centre, it is probably not an option.

However, in Europe, the US and, increasingly, in Britain, people are finding another solution. If you join a car club, you can have access to a vehicle when you need it, far more cheaply and conveniently than by renting, and without having to worry about the damn thing when you're not actually using it.

The way it works is simple. The club maintains a fleet of cars parked in bays around the city, ideally within a 10-minute walk of members' homes or workplaces. (City Car Club, the longest-established, has 22 cars in Edinburgh and 41 in London, and also operates in Brighton and Hove, and Bristol). Every member pays a monthly fee - £15, though introductory offers can be as low as £7. When you need a car you ring and book it, either in advance or, if you see it sitting there, on the spot. You pay an hourly charge - £2.80 for a small car, £3 for a larger one, to a maximum of £36 for 24 hours, plus a mileage charge of 17p or 18p which includes fuel. When you're through, you return it to its bay.

Other clubs are tailored to more specialised needs. With the Classic Car Club, £3,000 a year buys an average of 50 days' access to Rollers, Jags, Aston Martins, a 1978 Cadillac Seville or a 1961 Austin Healey Sprite.

So why would any city-dweller feel tempted to actually own a car?

The main problem seems to be Brits' tendency to bond with their cars. In North America, where car clubs are more established, the attitude towards wheels has traditionally been utilitarian. Cars are not, as they tend to be here, a matter of pride, or Top Gear-look-what-I've-got compensatory glamour.

In Europe, it's slightly different. Car clubs are most successful in Germany and Switzerland, in both cases as part of a public transport continuum in whicha railway season ticket also buys you reduced car club membership.

Since every club vehicle takes five private cars off the road, car clubs ought to form a vital part of any transport policy. So far, in Britain, only Thameslink has shown any interest in this kind of integrated scheme. But there are straws in the wind. In Bradford-on-Avon, the A2B Car Club is part of a Smart Travel Club which also includes a ride-sharing facility and access to a shared taxi project.

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