Do you really need a car if you live in a city? The argument for giving up on four wheels is pretty convincing. First, there's money: you're already shelling out on stamp duty and legal fees and stretching yourself to those all-too-familiar crippling levels of monthly repayments. If you're renting, you may spare yourself some of the big cheques, but you may not have too much slushing around in your current account for the MOT and servicing, and that's before you've told the insurance company about your "exciting" new urban postcode. Then there's the lifestyle argument: you've got trams, buses and trains on your doorstep. And, more to the point, bars. And who wants to burn carbon anyway?
So you make the leap, and give up the car, then realise that a trip to Ikea would be really useful, and that the whole online supermarket thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's not that you want a car every day. Just when you need one.
No wonder, then, that new developments with on-site "car clubs" are weaving themselves into the fabric of modern Britain. It's a beautifully simple idea: down in the car park, you get a couple of hatchbacks that anyone can book for a reasonable hourly fee.
"I'm trying to think of some problems with the car-share, but I can't," says Tania Cutts. In June, she moved from West Sussex to a new apartment in the centre of Leeds to live near her mother and son, and to give her 16-year-old daughter a better social life. It suited the family perfectly. But since she didn't want the £150-a-month additional cost of the private parking space, her nice Mercedes A-Class had to go. "I don't miss having my own car. Far from it. I can walk faster than the traffic through the city centre, and you get the worry about a trolley scraping down the side of your car in the supermarket."
In her block, the Gateway, residents have free initial membership of a car club, with two Citroën C1s based in the car park. It's run by an outside firm, Whizzgo, which also operates a city-wide scheme, so if Gateway residents need a bigger car – as Cutts did when she helped her son move home – she can pick up another from a public car park across the road.
Each car-club member has a smart-card to access and activate cars, and the cost for short hops is pretty low. Most companies that run the car clubs keep them clean and well maintained. Insurance and other overheads are bundled into the price. Cutts uses the car several times a week, and has never found that there's a problem with a car being available. "It is so easy to phone up and book," she says. "The cars have been perfect, they have been topped up with fuel, they come with in-car telephones in case you need get in touch with them. They are very, very clean."
For the first six months, Cutts gets five hours a month of car use without paying for any petrol or other charges. After that, she will have a choice of which tariff to sign up to. But at less than £5 an hour, whichever one she opts for, she reckons it will be much cheaper than having her own car.
Craig Copland is another satisfied member of a car club. He has been a member of Streetcar, attached to his housing development at the Royal Arsenal building in Woolwich, south London, for two years. "It works very well," he says. For him, too, one of the great benefits is the cost-saving. He paid £10,000 for a parking space when he bought his apartment – the going price now is £18,000 – but he's sold his car and rents out the space to bring in a bit of extra monthly cash.
Mr Copland hires from the car club several times a month, but calculates his annual cost is less than £1,000 a year. He can still take off for a day in the Kentish countryside, but is happy not driving in London. "I'm from Vancouver originally," he explains, "and you cannot live without a car there. But I hate driving in the city. Public transport is quicker most of the time, and I don't want to own a car because it would just sit there more often than not."
The car-club idea was imported from the Netherlands and Germany. In the past two years, it has boomed in Britain, to the point where councils now ask a third of all large new developments to include a car club, with the threat of forcing them to do so if they don't voluntarily comply. For developers, it means they can do away with some of the car park and build more flats instead, thus boosting their profits. For councils, it helps cut congestion.
Charlotte Morton, chief executive of Whizzgo, says that developers are very keen to integrate car clubs within major schemes. "That interest has changed in recent years. Once it was a requirement [imposed upon them]. Now developers are actually looking to incorporate car clubs," she says.
Morton concedes that car clubs cannot work long term if they're exclusively attached to one apartment block: the figures just don't add up, and developers are unlikely to continue their subsidy beyond the initial six months. So, the schemes merge with city-wide clubs, meaning that members of the public could one day be swiping themselves past the security gates and into your "private" car park. But this doesn't seem to worry those who use the clubs. Mr Copland says it is only if he tries to book at the very last minute that he has problems getting a car, and sometimes they're not always perfectly clean, but he is not complaining. "It is probably cleaner than most people keep their car," he says. "I have never found McDonald's leftovers on the floor."
Developments with car clubs
The Gateway, Leeds
This partially completed city-centre development contains one- and two-bedroom apartments, a hotel, restaurant and gym. Residents have free membership of the on-site car club, including limited free use of cars. Prices start at £135,000. City Living: 0113-3980099; www.thegatewayleeds.co.uk
A new quayside development of houses and flats. Residents are given membership of the on-site car club. Two-bedroom flats begin at £227,500. Crest Nicholson: 08707 510 476; www.crestnicholson.com
Grand Union Village, west London
A new development on the Grand Union Canal, based around a marina. It has one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and three- to six-bedroom houses. The developers say car ownership takes second place to walking, cycling and the subsidised car club. Prices begin at £187,950. Bryant: 020-8841 8247; www.bryant.co.uk/london
Admiralty Quarter, Portsmouth
A partially completed development of studio flats, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and penthouses, surrounding a courtyard garden. Residents are given membership of the on-site car club. Prices begin at £165,000. Crest Nicholson: 0870 759 032; www.admiralty-quarter.co.ukReuse content