Freewheeling offers cheap way of travelling around: Lift-sharing agencies are on the increase, reports Andrew Bibby

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The Independent Online
ANN GINTY, a local authority administrator, recently moved to north London but still occasionally plays hockey with her old team in Coventry. Getting to fixtures can be a problem without a car of her own. Instead she tries to find motorists with spare seats going the same way, through a rather safer alternative to traditional hitch- hiking.

Ms Ginty is one of about 6,500 drivers and passengers who have registered with the London-based lift-sharing agency Freewheelers. When she wants a lift, she rings the agency and keeps her fingers crossed that a driver will also ring to offer the same journey.

'I joined about a year ago. I drive, but I haven't got a car and I was a bit fed up with train and coach prices,' she said.

Freewheelers has arranged several trips for her between Coventry, London and Bristol, though she was less lucky in an attempt to get to a hockey tournament in Swindon.

'It's usually easier if you can be flexible about when you travel. It's a pity there are not more members - there'd be more chance if there were.'

Steve Andrews, one of Freewheelers' directors, admits that the service is still being developed. 'There's a catch-22 in getting a lift agency going: who wants to join until it's working properly?'

At its best for journeys to one-off events such as the Glastonbury music festival, Freewheelers clearly manages to satisfy most requests. Trips between smaller towns can be much more problematic.

'It's possible for a member to call us three or four times and not get a lift,' Mr Andrews said. He takes comfort from the lift-sharing scheme in Quebec, the inspiration for Freewheelers when it was set up 18 months ago, which he says now has 200,000 participants.

Freewheelers has targeted student communities in its expansion efforts, and has a strong student and ex-student feel to it.

Anthony Parana-Hetty, who has just graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University, signed up as a driver after seeing details in his student union.

'I decided to join because I had recently acquired a car. It was rather expensive to run, and I thought this scheme would help pay for petrol to travel around,' he said.

In line with Freewheelers' recommended tariff, he charges passengers 2.5p per mile, or about pounds 5 per person for Manchester-London trips. 'I regularly have two or three people with me. It's ever so slightly inconvenient, but everybody tends to be flexible,' he said.

Not everyone necessarily would welcome the prospect of carrying strangers in their car. Mr Parana- Hetty says he has had only one potentially difficult experience, with a passenger who wanted to be taken on to St Albans after arriving in London. Other occasions have been more successful.

'I took a member of the Hare Krishnas, an ex-Rastafarian, called Elvis and we spent the journey discussing religion and politics,' he said. 'Freewheelers is a lot better than hitch-hiking, where you can meet lots of dodgy people.'

Freewheelers tries to ensure safety by issuing ID cards to all its registered drivers and passengers, and taking phone numbers, addresses and car registration details. It also offers same-sex matching on request. But the agency also stresses to its members that they should check each others' IDs carefully, and that they travel at their own risk.

'You can never be 100 per cent sure but so far, touch wood, I've had no problem. I know in advance the registration number of the car and I have details of the driver,' Ann Ginty said.

Freewheelers charges passengers an annual membership fee of pounds 5 payable when the first successful match is made, plus pounds 1 for each match. Drivers can become members and use the agency free of charge.

Another lift-sharing agency, the Travelshare Company, was established earlier this year by Lindsay Gill, a University of Northumbria music graduate, and has about 150 members, primarily in the North-east. Travelshare's charges are a little higher than Freewheelers' (matches cost both parties pounds 2.50, for example), though it has instituted a somewhat tighter vetting system that includes photo-card IDs.

A third agency, Bristol-based Driveshare UK, concentrates primarily on matching commuter journeys, as well as offering a transport consultancy service for employers.

All three organisations, which are collaborating in the launch later this month of a new Association of Lift- Sharing Agencies, stress the environmental advantages of their work and claim that car-sharing can make a contribution to general transport policy.

Motorists should encounter no insurance difficulties in taking passengers. A spokeswoman for Norwich Union, the largest motor insurer, said that the general rule is that normal cover remains in place provided that lift-sharing is not offered as a profit-making business venture, that contributions by passengers are simply to help cover costs, and that vehicles used have no more than eight seats.

Freewheelers 071-738 6861; Travelshare Company 091-222 0090; Driveshare UK 0272-667755.

(Photograph omitted)

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