When Mike Vesey moved into his new flat last November, part of the attraction of his new block, Carlton Drive in Putney, London, was that it was a car-free development. The developers had teamed up with Streetcar - the UK's largest car-sharing club, founded in 2004 - to offer an incentive to residents: the shared use of a couple of VW Golfs.
"It wasn't the sole reason I moved here, but it helped," says Vesey, a civil servant. "When I first moved to London 12 years ago, I had a car. But it quickly became a hassle: the parking, the expense." He now finds that the car club plugs the gap. "I've already hired the Streetcar to drive up to my family in Manchester next weekend," he says.
According to Streetcar's spokeswoman, the development, by Servite, is the first to have no private cars at all, aiming to have all its key-worker inhabitants' motoring needs handled by the club.
But you don't have to move into a car-free development to join a car club. Anyone can join. You register to a car club that serves you locally: Streetcar charges a one-off life membership of £25, plus a £100 returnable deposit. Subscribers are then given a smart card, which they use to open the car, after having booked it by phone or internet. The ignition key is in the glove compartment, and a code number activates the car.
The cars then cost £4.95 an hour to hire, or £35 for 24 hours, going up to a Monday-to-Friday rental of £150. The provider takes care of insurance, provided your licence is accepted. The insurance doesn't cover drivers aged under 21, but there are apparently moves to change that.
The Department for Transport - which supports car clubs - says that car-club membership in the UK has risen from 250 members in 2000 to nearly 6,000 in 2005. "The Government wants to encourage car clubs as a means of helping people travel more sustainably," says a DfT spokeswoman. The DfT guides and encourages people to start clubs, and has funded CarPlus, the national charity promoting car sharing.
Andrew Valentine, who set up Streetcar with Brett Akker after examining the success of American car clubs, is optimistic. "People are fed up with the cost and hassle of car ownership, as well as the aggravation of factors like parking," he says. Streetcar, the biggest of the 30 clubs in the UK, with around 3,000 members and 100 cars, claims to be the first to be profitable.
Valentine says that most subscribers are driven by price factors. He cites an AA figure that an average car costs its owner £2,749 a year, whereas the same use with a Streetcar would cost £707. "But we also know that car clubs are driven by environmental reasons."
The car-club boom is part of a broader move away from the private car. Most urban planners now envisage a decrease in car use, particularly in cities, and this is determining the shape of housing as we are gradually "designed" out of our dependency on the car. As with the Servite example in Putney, car-club membership is becoming popular as an incentive in housing developments. For instance, the new Poole Quarter in Dorset has a travel plan drawn up by the builders Crest Nicholson, in which families are encouraged to lose at least their second cars. At Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway's Staiths South Bank development for Wimpey in Gateshead, each apartment gets a fold-away bike.
CarPlus is fielding lots of calls from local authorities and property developers. Philip Igoe of CarPlus says: "It's frantic, as so many people want to join the car club phenomenon. In some places the developers are leading local authorities, mainly because residential developments have to have a travel plan, and are finding that the fewer parking spaces they include, the more likely their plans are to get through."
Salutary stuff - but the car culture still needs to change. As a car owner, I recognise feelings of possessiveness about my car, which I consider to be a private space. Another vexed issue is the consumer attachment to the car: the notion that people acquire identity and meaning from their ownership of, say, the latest BMW. But, says Valentine, "there'll always be people who want to own a car because of what it says about them."
Interestingly, many of the questions put to car clubs relate to personal concerns. "People often ask, 'What if it's filthy?' or 'What if it smells of smoke?'" Igoe says. "They talk about being able to have their own CDs in their car. Well, for a start, most car clubs don't allow smoking [they also charge for returning a car dirty], but most of the adjustments to behaviour are quite small. It doesn't take much, after all, to take your CDs into your car." As for the demographic of car clubbers, Igoe says that they tend to have a greater take-up among the urban middle classes.
Still, such progressiveness inevitably brings a slight loss of flexibility. "If you want to go to the supermarket, you might have to wait one or two hours," Igoe says. However, finding an available car isn't much of an issue, particularly as car clubs have a growing number of designated on-road parking spaces.
It might seem easy to run away with car-club vehicles, but they are fitted with tracking and remote immobilisation technology, and are rarely stolen. "I know of one car-club car that has been stolen in the five years of operation," Igoe says.
What of the car manufacturers? Despite the likelihood that wider car-sharing will lead to falling sales, Valentine says that some manufacturers are on board. "One European manufacturer is, I understand, fitting certain features for sharing on to new models." The new MIT concept car, designed by William Mitchell of the US-based Smart Cities research group, is designed to be used rather like a shopping trolley, to be stacked at railway stations and airports.
Streetcar has estimated that each of its cars replaces an average of six private cars. It also claims that members typically bring down their car use by 70 per cent. On the other hand, it has been suggested that car clubs and sharing might tempt people away from public transport, particularly when prices are more favourable than the train.
Either way, the trend is a step towards the time when the UK's population of about 30 million cars will be severely culled - a situation many would welcome.
How car clubs work
Car-club members pay a joining fee, and then can hire a car parked near by at an hourly rate of £4.95, or £35 for the day.
The cars are parked in specially designated car-club parking bays.
Car-club advocates claim that the system is more effective in cutting car use than penalties and restrictions, such the London congestion charge.
Car-sharing cuts down on CO2 emissions. Streetcar claims that its operations already bring a reduction of 500 tons a year.
Former car-owners increase their use of non-car transport modes by 40 per cent after joining a car club (source: Ledbury 2004).
A study by the Environmental Change Institute shows that 63.5 per cent of car-club members either give up their own cars or don't buy a private vehicle.
How to get started
Streetcar (08456 448 476; www.streetcar.co.uk).
CarPlus (0113-234 9299; www.carplus.org.uk). The CarPlus website has a database of car clubs around the country, as well as details of lift-sharing, a scheme for sharing the use of private cars.
The Department for Transport's guidance for residential and workplace travel planning can be found at www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_susttravel/documents/divisionhomepage/031341.hcsp.
The DfT's 2004 report "Smarter Choices: Changing the Way We Travel" includes studies of car clubs in Edinburgh and Bristol; see www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_susttravel/documents/divisionhomepage/031340.hcsp.