Car sharing is non-starter for most Britons

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The Independent Online

Sharing cars is something the British just don't do. It doesn't matter if it's Edinburgh, Leeds or Towcester, come Monday morning, the streets will be overflowing with cars again, most with spare seats front and back.

Sharing cars is something the British just don't do. It doesn't matter if it's Edinburgh, Leeds or Towcester, come Monday morning, the streets will be overflowing with cars again, most with spare seats front and back.

There will be few lifts on offer for friends or colleagues forced to trudge through fumes or jostle in bus queues. Many take the view of Steve Norris, the former Tory transport minister, that with cars "you have your own company, your own temperature control, your own music ­ and don't have to put up with dreadful human beings sitting alongside you".

Not even Thursday's Tube strike will affect the absurd cult of the lone driver. London will be congested to a standstill. Yet there are rarely attempts to organise lift-sharing in the capital. On Thursday, workers are merely being told to bring their vehicles or stay at home.

Even in a motor-obsessed city such as Los Angeles, drivers have come round to sharing. It is attractive because cars with more than one occupant ("multiple-occupied vehicles", or "MOVs") are allowed to use fast-moving priority lanes. San Francisco has a similar system. So desirable is access to the priority routes amid the six lanes of jam-packed traffic that, in the early days, Californian students charged motorists several dollars a time to pick them up.

Switzerland and Germany have developed a different approach, with the car club, which offers 24-hour access to a jointly-owned pool of vehicles for a nominal fee. Thirty thousand Swiss have access to 1,200 centrally owned cars at 700 points around the country, thanks to Mobility Carsharing, the biggest car-share club in the world, backed by the Swiss government.

Here, there have been a few steps in the right direction, but it remains hard going. In Nottingham, the Boots company encourages employees to pool their cars. It matches staff with spare seats, offers the best parking spots to the 800 people taking part and, if anyone gets stranded at work, pays for their taxis home. Last week British Airways launched a similar venture at its Heathrow headquarters. (Although nothing to do with transport is simple in this country, the viability of the Boots scheme is about to be challenged by Nottingham City Council which is determined to levy a £450 parking tax on anyone who takes a car to work.)

On a wider scale, it remains doubtful how successful car-sharing can be without the direct financial support of employers, as a failed venture by the RAC and Edinburgh City Council has demonstrated. Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, says it attracted little interest despite the famous congestion of Edinburgh's streets. "At first everyone said it's a great idea. But when we followed it up we found the "nimf" factor: not in my front seat. When it came down to it, people didn't want to share the physical space. The car is seen as an extension of the home, in this country."

The lack of priority lanes for cars with more than one occupant is another obstacle, although there are now experiments under way in Leeds and Bristol. A short stretch of the M4 has a special bus lane and yesterday it was reported that the initiative would be extended to other motorways.

The first car clubs are also beginning to emerge. Jo Rathbone, a voluntary worker and mother of two belongs to the Coventry DriveShare scheme. For £10 a month, she and a dozen residents have access to a Vauxhall Corsa and a Vauxhall Astra Estate. She uses the car twice a week, paying £3 for the first hour of driving, and £2 for every subsequent hour. With her husband taking the train to Birmingham to work, it means the family doesn't need a car of its own.

"For our family, it's brilliant," she said. "And for us, it's cheaper than owning a car. I also think it puts motoring and other forms of transport on a more even footing, because you can see the costs of the car up-front."

Additional reporting, Lauren Collins and James Gooder

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