Is it time to give up your car?

Running a car costs us more each month than the average mortgage, yet despite gridlock, rapacious road-policing and impending eco-disaster, we insist on owning one. Not for much longer, says Michael Booth, as he charts the inexorable rise of the shared-ownership movement, and meets the Brighton converts who all use the same, slightly dented, motor
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As a motoring writer I am fairly well insulated from the stresses and pressures of everyday driving. It's hard not to sound unbearably self-satisfied when I say this, but I do have new cars - spotlessly clean, insured, taxed and fully fuelled - delivered to my door each week upon my command. I don't have to worry about servicing costs, insurance premiums, parking scrapes, valeting, road tax or depreciation. You could argue, then, that I have about as much understanding of the pain of real-world motoring as Paris Hilton's chihuahua, but even I realise that something has gone seriously, perhaps terminally awry with the British public's infatuation with the private car.

As a motoring writer I am fairly well insulated from the stresses and pressures of everyday driving. It's hard not to sound unbearably self-satisfied when I say this, but I do have new cars - spotlessly clean, insured, taxed and fully fuelled - delivered to my door each week upon my command. I don't have to worry about servicing costs, insurance premiums, parking scrapes, valeting, road tax or depreciation. You could argue, then, that I have about as much understanding of the pain of real-world motoring as Paris Hilton's chihuahua, but even I realise that something has gone seriously, perhaps terminally awry with the British public's infatuation with the private car.

Every day the newspapers are full of stories of pernicious traffic wardens, officious traffic police, Draconian new in-car spy technology, congestion-charge increases, speed-camera blitzes and petrol tax rises. And there is worse to come. Slowly we are being indoctrinated into believing that road tolls, or more worrying, a national pay-as-you drive scheme (proposed in Alistair Darling's "The Future of Transport" White Paper) are inevitable. Proposals to build "express" motorway lanes for cars carrying more than one occupant are being seriously mooted, with trials set to begin on the M25 and M1 soon. And who would bet against punitive costs for second- and third-car ownership?

Meanwhile, we pay more for our petrol than everyone else in Europe bar the Finns; in London the congestion charge will rise to £8 in July with the size of the payment zone doubling by 2007; and various local authorities have done their best over recent years to make driving as hellish as possible by implementing sadistic "traffic calming" measures that have precisely the opposite effect on drivers.

Out on the motorways, police forces are beginning to abandon the tacit agreement that has existed with motorists for decades not to fine those who exceed the 70mph limit by just a few miles an hour. Between junctions 14 and 18 of the M4, for instance, 70mph most definitely means 70mph, which is hardly sporting. Elsewhere, the Sussex Speed Camera Partnership raked in £750,000 in two months from a section of the A27 near where I live. Apparently, there was a 44 per cent increase in speeding offences in 2003. And they claim the cameras are a deterrent...

Even when we want to stop driving, we can't. According to the RAC, eight out of 10 drivers on urban streets are looking for somewhere to park. In the UK there is, apparently, one space for every 10 cars - no wonder parking in towns can feel like a permanent game of musical chairs and 90 per cent of council parking attendants report having been attacked each year. They already dish out almost eight million tickets per annum. Just wait until we get those "Parking Eye" spy cameras which text the nearest wardens the minute your meter runs out: "Traffic wardens won't roam any more," the MD of the firm that makes the fiendish devices said recently, adding the chilling, Robocop-esque threat, "They will respond."

Then, of course, with the cost of parking now verging on the criminal, if you do find somewhere to leave your car you will have to pump the meter full of pound coins to register enough time to carry out your errand, which will probably involve going to get more change.

Meanwhile, four-figure insurance premiums are not unusual, while servicing, repairs, tax and - where relatively new cars are involved - depreciation (a halving of a car's value in its first three years is commonplace) also take their toll. According to the RAC, the cost of car ownership is around £5,000 per annum, which works out as more each month than the average mortgage. And the burden is only going to rise.

Never mind that we all know that speed cameras don't really make our roads safer and neither is that their intention; that 80mph is a perfectly safe speed under most motorway conditions, and that traffic wardens are little more than rapacious revenue collectors for local councils. Also ignored by the Department of Transport, in its excitement over car-sharing lanes, is the fact that many such routes in the US have reverted to toll lanes as no one was using them. They are now nicknamed "Lexus lanes", as they have become express routes for the rich - not a demographic known for sharing their cars.

Britain's 32 million motorists are being milked like a herd of unwitting Jerseys and there is a growing chorus of outraged moos, not just in the media. Over the past few months, three of my friends gave up their cars altogether. All of them live in big cities, and cited either soaring costs or concern for the environment as their reasons. One of them joined one of the new car-sharing schemes in London, others were lured back to public transport.

They are not alone. We are turning to public transport like never before. There were almost 40 per cent more passenger journeys made on the railways last year compared to a decade ago: a total of over one billion, the most since 1959. In London bus passenger figures have increased by the same figure over the past four years. I don't want to drown you in figures; you get the gist.

Then came the news that new car sales had fallen yet again. The number of private car purchases dropped in February by a whopping 22.9 per cent compared to the same month last year but, far more significantly, the March figures - which, as one of the two new number-plate months, are a key market indicator - showed a drop of over 10.6 per cent (you'd have to go back four years to find worse sales figures than the first quarter of 2005). Admittedly 2004 was a record year, but this is unmistakably a downward trend and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders which collates the figures predicts that the slowdown will continue.

Understandably, given the fact that they represent the manufacturers, the SMMT blame the economy as a whole rather than a sociological sea change against the privately owned motor car. "You can put this down to the uncertainty in the housing market and a general air of caution which is a knock-on of the interest rate increases in 2003/2004," the SMMT's * economic manager Matthew Croucher tells me. "The private sector is slowing down, but it's the economy at large that's doing it."

But surely the British economy is not in that parlous a state. We still have high levels of growth, low interest rates, low inflation and low unemployment. I am not convinced the decline in sales, which is already forcing job losses in British car factories - including Peugeot's Ryton plant and, of course, Rover - can be brushed under the car mat so easily.

Certainly the car industry doesn't think so. I came across this startling quote, effectively predicting the end of private car ownership, from Bill Ford, the chairman of the Ford Motor Company, of all people: "The day will come when the whole notion of car ownership is antiquated. the whole notion of you owning a car won't be appealing: you will own access to mobility," he said, adding that drivers of the future will prefer to rely on pools of cars which they share with others and to which they would have convenient access (it's worth noting here that Ford owns Hertz). His rough timescale for this seismic consumer shift was around a decade.

He made the speech five years ago.

Could it really be true? Is the death of the privately owned car - that revolutionary enabler of individual freedom, coveted status symbol and much cherished mobile personal space - inevitable? And if so, what is the alternative? The renaissance of public transport is heartening, but the very reason we have stuck with the private car for so long, despite the colossal, senseless expense of having our second most expensive piece of capital investment sitting idle for - on average - 23 hours a day, is that its flexibility, privacy and convenience simply can not be rivalled. Which might just be where car clubs come in.

These locally based car-sharing schemes, in which members pay a monthly fee and then pay as they go, using cars parked close to their homes, have long been popular in Holland, Switzerland (where the idea began just after the Second World War) and Germany. Tens of thousands of users in these countries have shown that just one car can do the work of six privately owned cars and that, by joining a club, they typically reduce their annual mileage by up to 75 per cent. There are now around 26 car-sharing schemes in Britain, with over 2,200 members - almost half of them joining in the past year, according to the car-club charity Carplus.

The largest car club in Britain, CityCarClub, operates in London, Bristol, Edinburgh and Brighton. Its members pay £15 a month and then £2.80 per hour and 17p per mile to borrow a Vauxhall Corsa or Renault Clio (slightly more for a Focus or Astra). Everything is included - insurance, petrol, servicing, upkeep - and cars are parked in residential areas (there are currently 50 in London, for instance). New technology allows members to pre-book cars over the internet or phone, and for operators to keep a close eye on their fleet.

If you drive less than 8,000 miles a year, CityCarClub claims you could save around £1,250 on the cost of owning a car, and there are several advantages over renting a car too: members can borrow cars by the hour and decide precisely when to return it (they can even extend the loan of the car, assuming no one else has reserved it); in theory the car is parked within walking distance of their house (otherwise, there is little point in joining in the first place); and the insurance excess is only £100, compared to the usual £300 to £500 with rental firms.

I live close to Brighton and went along to talk to the club manager, Simon Bannister, in his broom-cupboard office in the basement of the Brighton Eco Centre. Since launching in September last year the Brighton branch now has 83 members, he tells me. "They tend to be new-media types, but we also have families with kids. It is ideal for people who use a car a few times a week, to go shopping or on the odd trip that's tricky by bus. There are parts of Brighton where you have an 18-month waiting list for a parking permit and even when you get one you can still spend 40 minutes trying to find an empty space. But we have dedicated spaces enforced by parking attendants."

In no time at all, Simon had checked my driving licence (up to six points are allowed) and issued me with my smart card, membership and pin numbers, and a map showing the locations of the club's cars.

The first time you use one of the club's cars you must book either by phone or over the internet but after that you can literally turn up at the car, get in and drive off. I rang to reserve a Vauxhall Corsa, one of the seven-strong Brighton fleet, for an hour the next day. My first choice was already taken, but there was another car five minutes away. The next day I found the car in its dedicated parking bay, waved my card over a receiver in the windscreen, climbed in, keyed in my pin code to a small computer in the glove box, took the keys from a secret cubby hole location and drove off.

It sounds easy and is, but I do have some reservations. Firstly, predictably, the car was rubbish: a knackered old Corsa, with a large dent on one side, various stains on the back seat and a smelly cabin. Secondly, comments such as "Seat back left in very reclined position!" in the log book suggest both a certain possessiveness and a lack of consideration on the part of some members that could prove irritating in the long run. Thirdly - and this, I realise, would rule me out as a potential member from the off - I live about five miles away from the car and had to drive there and park before borrowing it.

So who is joining? "Most of our members have the means to own a car - they have above average income and education," the CityCarClub's Dutch MD, Dirk Van Dijl says. "They are a bit anti-car but they still need a car every so often. Many of them sell their cars when they join [around 80 per cent, in fact] and find that, because they can see more directly the costs involved with using a car they start to consider other forms of transport. And of course, owning a car in London is a royal pain in the rear end."

Clubs are now mooted for Cambridge, Norwich, Glasgow, Manchester and Bath, aided by local councils who are starting to support car-sharing schemes by providing dedicated parking bays and encouraging developers who incorporate car-sharing schemes in their planning of new housing (which they are all too keen to do as it means they don't need to provide so much parking space and can use the land more profitably). He sees car clubs becoming * a mainstream alternative to the private car within the next decade.

In fact, the signs are there that car clubs are moving into the mainstream already, not just in Britain, but throughout Europe, in the more developed parts of Asia and even in the US, a country hardly renowned for its environmentally sensitive attitude to car use. Americans are said to be flocking to car clubs at a rate of 1,000 a month, with membership expected to increase tenfold over the next five years.

Honda sponsors one of the largest car clubs in the US and is now using the Intelligent Community Vehicle System - essentially a large-scale car club with 222 cars - that it has run for some years in Singapore, in its UK advertising campaign (it's the one with car-shaped doilies).

Isn't this a case of the turkeys voting for Christmas? "Well, Honda isn't just a car company, our business is mobility perhaps in a broader sense than other car companies," explains company spokesman Lawrence Pearce when I put this to him. "Obviously we are keen to differentiate ourselves from other manufacturers but we are seriously interested in looking long term, at broader notions of how people get about. Car sharing is one area."

Reading between the lines, I suspect that Honda's interest lies in two areas: the first is an awareness of the benefits of high-profile, environmentally aware schemes (look at the PR benefits Toyota has reaped from its petrol- electric hybrid the Prius, whose technology is surging towards the mainstream) and, secondly, a genuine long-term hunch that their private car sales are eventually going to hit the skids.

But something about car sharing didn't really appeal to me. Perhaps it was the stains on the back seat, I don't know. I remembered reading last year about an intriguing new concept called Indego - the article was headlined "The Future of Car Ownership"; it described a radical new way of designing, building, selling and owning cars. The idea was that, instead of buying an Indego car, customers would lease them for, say, £5 a day - including insurance and servicing - for a flexible period. Unlike current leasing schemes, which lock you into ownership for three or four years, with Indego you could change the car's colour, interior, technology or even the whole thing whenever you wanted. You would, of course, buy it over the internet, and the latest technology for downloading music, 3G-ing and all that gubbins, would be built in.

Indego claimed to quadruple the paltry profits of car manufacturers (currently 5.9 per cent on average - they might as well stick their money in the Abbey National) by leaving costly research and development to leaner, independent engineering consultants (Lotus is a world leader at this, for example), by assembling components made in China or India in cheap factories, and by leasing, which means they can rake the profits from insurance and servicing.

The Indego project had some heavy hitters behind it, including Steve Young, the vice president of the automotive consultancy AT Kearney, and the former boss of Ford Europe (most recently departed from Maserati), Martin Leach, but it was just a theory. Or so I thought.

When I catch up with Young, he fills me in on Indego's progress: "Well, I have not left Kearney and with a few others - let's say people you would know from the motor industry - we are looking to get it off the ground by the end of next year," he tells me. This won't quite be the all-new product, with modular bodywork and upgradeable interior as promised, but more likely an existing model from an, as yet unnamed, European manufacturer. Despite using a blend of oily charm and threats, I can't get Steve to tell me much more, though it would be fascinating to see him try and do something with the ailing Smart brand or Lancia, for instance.

What he can tell me is that this will be a radical, flexible way of leasing a car that has much in common with the way in which we use our mobile phones. "Currently the leasing company gives you a car and then forgets about all you," he explains. "With our product we will be able to monitor how our customers use their car and tailor it to them. If they use it less than they expected, we will suggest a different package, for instance. Changing your car will be much easier. There is a sea change in car ownership. We have got to the point where most cars are like white goods - they are reliable, fundamentally all the same but way over-engineered in terms of performance. Most people don't want cars that can lap the Nürburgring in record time; we will put more effort into the telematics."

In other words, rather than building cars to impress car journalists, Young is going to make cheap, dynamically dull runabouts and pack them with toys. "There will always be a market for Ferraris and luxury saloons like BMWs because they are about other things like driving fun and prestige," he says. "Our focus is on a high level of service - delivering the car to your door, picking it up for an overnight service, upgrading the internet connection. Our largest number of employees will be at the call centre."

Henry Ford's Model T lit the touch paper for the democratisation of mobility that was one of the defining characteristics of the 20th century. By the 1950s car ownership was a realistic aspiration for the emerging middle class and, with the arrival of the Mini, the working classes too. The emergence of Asian manufacturers in the 1970s heralded the era of the truly global car, and over the course of half a century ours became a wheeled planet. Owning a car became directly equated with status, pleasure and, above all, freedom.

But not any more. Something has to give regarding the way that we buy, own and use our cars in this country. British motorists pay around £42bn a year to the exchequer, and there seems no limit to how much our rulers are prepared to tighten the screw in the name of the environment. It can't be all that long before drivers reach the "mad as hell and not going to take it any more" stage. That said, even a die-hard, mouth-breathing Autocar subscriber (such as myself) can still wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night worrying about the car's role in the imminent global environmental crisis. The question is, are you prepared to share your car with a stranger, or give up that BMW badge altogether in order to be part of the solution, rather than just part of the problem?

More on CityCarClub at www.smartmoves.co.uk

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