Members generally pay a monthly fee of around £5 to join, and around £5 an hour for the use of a new car which will be low on fuel consumption and carbon. Joe Clancy discovers what car clubs have to offer.
Cynics argue that going green can inflict serious damage to your bank balance. Environmentally friendly gadgets like wind turbines, solar panels and energy-saving lightbulbs are often held up as examples where the consumer must cough up more cash up front before they can realise the promise of long-term savings. Yet there is one way of reducing your carbon emissions and immediately boost your economic health, making the environmentally-conscious quids-in both instantly and over the long term. Car clubs.
How? Just sell the car, bank the proceeds and join a car club. It is estimated that motorists whose annual mileage is less than 6,000 miles can end up saving £3,500 a year. No car tax, no insurance, no maintenance or repair bills, no fuel costs, no breakdown cover, no parking permit fees or congestion charges, and no loan repayments – all these savings apply to car club members who have use of a car on demand.
Members generally pay a monthly fee of around £5 to join and around £5 an hour for the use of a new car which will be low on fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Fuel and insurance are often included in the hourly rate. It is a cost saving that both individuals and businesses are waking up to. While the brakes are being applied to the car industry with major manufacturers in slow down, the growth of car clubs is accelerating.
New car sales plunged in 2008 to their lowest level since 1996, but many car clubs saw their membership nearly double. Latest figures compiled by transport charity Carplus show that there are now more than 60,000 people regularly using 1,500 car club cars to get them from A to B. Studies in London suggest that each club car takes around 20 privately owned vehicles off the road, though the average is nearer six outside London. The majority of members are also based in the capital, where two thirds of the cars are currently located, but car clubs operate in more than 40 towns and cities across the country and there are more branches opening all the time.
Andrew Prior, a quantity surveyor from Leeds, is one driver who is benefiting. In early 2008, he was seeking to replace his 10-year-old Citroen Xantia, but he worked out that it would cost him £280 a month in loan repayments, running costs and depreciation to buy a newer model.
Yet for five days a week while he was at work, the car would just sit on his driveway “collecting rust”. His wife Sarah doesn’t drive and he was a weekend motorist, averaging around 6,000 miles a year. “At weekends we used the car for the supermarket shop, to visit friends, or to take our children out, but many of the journeys we made were just because the car was there and we felt we had to use it,” he said. “We weren’t using it in a sensible manner.”
He searched the internet for alternatives and found that Whizzgo operates in Leeds, and had a car collection point around 15 minutes walk from his home. He calculated he would save at least £2,000 a year by joining. “My last monthly bill from Whizzgo was just £66 and I paid less than £20 into a car share scheme for my journey to work,” he said.
“We have restructured the way we live our lives, walking a lot more and using public transport more. Instead of going to the supermarket every weekend, we now go just once a month and plan our food purchases more carefully, which also saves us around £100 a month. We are eating better and living a healthier lifestyle.
“We got £600 from the sale of our old car, not a lot maybe, but it helped towards the cost of a new kitchen.” He says it was financial rather than environmental considerations that persuaded him to ditch his car for club membership, but he added: “I also feel I am doing my bit for the environment. It is nice to think we are benefiting our children’s future by reducing our carbon emissions.”
He admits, however, that he was able to make the switch because it was convenient for him to do so. He lives close to a car club collection bay in an area well served by public transport and has good shops and other amenities close to home.
Car club savings
Steve Gregory is managing director of Whizzgo, the largest car club outside of London. He says that the majority of their members live within six minutes walk of one of their bays, which are mainly in town centre locations.
“In the first few years car clubs were used mainly by eco adopters who had a strong environmental focus in their everyday lives,” he explained. “Now they are reaching out to people asking ‘does it save me money’ and ‘is it convenient?’
“The environmental benefits seals the deal. But if that was the only benefit, I don’t think it would be enough to persuade people to change their everyday behaviour.”
Whizzgo is one of five large commercial operators alongside Streetcars, City Car Club, Zipcar and Connect by Hertz. There are some 15 smaller community car clubs with around 500 members. One, Commonwheels, is setting up to be a national operator supporting local community schemes.
Anyone aged over 18 who has been driving for at least a year can apply to join Whizzgo. Members can book a car online or by telephone with just 30 minutes notice. Cars are located at designated parking bays and accessed using a member’s smart card. Once inside, the driver enters a pin number and drives away, returning the car at the end of the journey.
Set up in 1999, City claims to be the first car club established in the UK. It now has 350 cars located in seven cities used by 9,000 members, and the club believes its expansion during the last decade will continue to accelerate as the concept gains wider appeal. James Finlayson, its chief executive, said membership grew by 80% last year.
“We are planning to continue 80% year-on-year growth over the next three years,” he said. “We are growing the fleet size quickly and are investing all the time. We have to put the cars in place before we can grow the membership, but we are looking at 2010 being our first year of profitability.”
He explained that advances in technology have made car clubs a much more viable commercial proposition. “In the early days, we had to provide safe locations for members to pick up and return car keys and we trusted people to record their mileage in a log book. Now we have keyless cars and all the information about usage is automatically stored on the in-car computer.”
James describes the typical City Car Club member is a young, professional urban dweller who generally commutes to work by public transport and does not have a major need for owning a car full-time. “They are high earners who could easily afford to run a car, but don’t want the hassle of the upkeep and the parking issues,” he added. “All our cars have their own bay so parking is never a problem.”
Yet he is noticing an increase in membership from couples and young families, who frequently give up their first or second car when joining. Freelance web designer Kate Portman and her husband Clive, a primary school teacher, joined City Car Club after it set up bays in Norwich, the latest city in which the company is operating.
“We had two £400 repair bills on our seven-year-old Ford Ka in a year,” Kate said. “We had been thinking about giving up the car for some time but couldn’t make the final step from a convenience point of view. But it failed its MoT and that forced our hand.
“We joined the car club and it is incredibly liberating – we no longer have to worry about unexpected bills. Clive cycles and I walk the three miles to work every day and, though it takes me half an hour, I don’t have to worry about where to park the car. It has had an enormous impact for the better on our lifestyle.”
What it costs
■ Membership: £5 per month for a minimum of 12 months.
■ Hourly rate: from £5.99 for a Citroen C1 to £7.49 for a Citroen Berlingo.
■ Daily rate: from £49.99 for a Citroen C1 to £62.99 for a Citroen Berlingo.
■ Mileage: 40 miles free fuel in each 24-hour period, then 25p per mile. Prices include fuel, insurance, tax, maintenance and even cleaning. City Car Club
■ Membership: £50 per annum
■ Hourly rate: a) Standard cars (Vauxhall Corsa, Ford Fiesta, Kia cee’d, Nissan Micra): £4.95; b) Larger cars (Vauxhall Astra, Vauxhall Astra Estate, Honda Civic Hybrid): £5.95 .
■ Daily rate: a) Standard cars, £49.50; b) Larger cars, £59.50.
■ Mileage: 50 miles free fuel in each 24 hour period, then 24p per mile thereafter.
What it saves
■ Car club members have smaller carbon footprints as they travel fewer miles and in more efficient cars.
■ One car club car takes at least five to 11 private cars off the road.
■ Car club members:
• use cars for a third of the number of trips of non-members
• walk and cycle almost twice as much as non-members
• use public transport three times more than non-members
• reduce their mileage by 53.6% after joining
■ Car club cars on average emit only 63% of the CO2 of the cars they replace, and
■ Save 0.7 tonnes of CO2 per year due to reduced car usage and more efficient vehicles.
■ Richard Vaughan, 36, a technical manager from Northolt, Middlesex. He is married and has two young children. Joined City Car Club: May 2008. Previous annual cost of running a car: £1,457. Annual car club bill: £600. Saving: £857 (£1,077 inc depreciation)
■ Kay Burney, 51, a freelance translator from Edinburgh. Single, no children. Joined City Car Club: 1999. Previous annual cost of running a car: £2,378.60 (including depreciation); Annual car club bill: £1,200. Saving: £1,178.60
Source: Carplus Car Club Annual Members Survey Report
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in April 2009