Can't stand the congestion, the cost or the CO2 fumes? Then hire a car at the club

Harriet Meyer on the vehicle-sharing initiatives that are helping thousands of city dwellers to cut both their motoring bills and their carbon footprint

As any car owner will testify, hitting the road means digging deep. The cost of insurance, maintenance, fuel, road tax and parking – just some of the expenses involved – can amount to thousands of pounds a year. And with over 20 million cars on the road, there is a big environmental price to pay for Britain's obsession with private transport.

To reduce the expense and hassle, more and more UK motorists are choosing to join car-share clubs. For a small annual fee or one-off membership charge, they can book a vehicle for as little as 30 minutes or a number of days or weeks, and be charged only for how long they use it and how far they drive.

There are now some 20 of these clubs operating in towns and cities around the UK, with nearly 30,000 members. They are easy to use. People who need a car for an hour, for example, log on to a website or phone the host company to book one. It is then usually just a short stroll to a parking bay to pick the vehicle up.

To open the car, a smart card is swiped across a windscreen reader. You take the keys from the glove compartment, input a pin number and away you go. The hourly rate is usually around £5, and often a free daily fuel allowance of 30 or so miles is included. After that, you pay about 20p per mile driven.

Rather than having to meet these costs with loose change, members are sent a monthly bill which is debited from their account. Insurance (excluding the excess payment), cleaning, servicing and car tax are all paid by the club. Considering it costs an average of around £5,500 per year for motorists to own and run their cars, according to the AA, members can save hefty sums – as well as helping to reduce pollution.

"On average, people cut their mileage by 60 per cent," says Philip Igoe, co-director of charity Carplus, set up to promote car clubs. "They appreciate the effect on their pocket and the environmental benefits."

With more than 20,000 members and 600 cars, Streetcar, established in 2004 and operating in London and the South-east, is the biggest company of its kind.

"Invariably, people come to us through frustration," says a spokesman. "They haven't been able to park, for example, and tend to be young professionals making a financial as well as an environmental decision."

Members pay an annual £49.95 fee and £4.95 an hour to hire a car – or £49.50 for a weekend or £195 for a week. Included is 30 miles' worth of free petrol a day; petrol costs 19p a mile after that. Streetcar's fleet consists mainly of Volkswagens but it also has vans.

Another big provider is City Car Club, which operates in eight UK cities and has 4,000 members. Its customers pay a £75 joining fee, plus an hourly rate of £4.75 in London. This club offers five-door hatchbacks and some hybrid cars with lower carbon emissions. Included is 50 miles' worth of free petrol a day.

"Local authorities are really starting to embrace the idea, and this is vital for car clubs, which need on-street parking locations," says City Car Club's chief executive, James Finlayson.

"The concept is still embryonic in the UK, but it's becoming more mainstream."

'They're cheaper than taxis or running your own car'

Tim Pope, 52, a lawyer from Leeds, has been a member of the WhizzGo car club, which has 3,500 members in 11 British cities, for three years.

He lives in a block of flats in the busy city centre and does not own a car because of the cost and the difficulty of parking. After seeing a row of WhizzGo's cars on the street, he decided to become a member.

"I'm close to the station and airport so make use of public transport a lot of the time," says Tim. "But to go and see friends at weekends and for supermarket shopping on the edge of town, the service is really useful." He hires cars regularly, paying around £150 a month.

"They're cheaper than taxis and convenient if you can't get a train to where you're going. Running a car would cost more."

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