Chas Ball, once a co-operative development officer, now chief executive of Carplus Trust, considers the future of shared mobility and the role co-ops have to play in the sector’s development.
Shared mobility, including car clubs, bike hire and taxi sharing, has become an important growth area in Europe. New models are emerging as the technology improves.
In Britain, over 160,000 people have become members of car clubs, using over 3,000 vehicles. Although the largest operators are commercial companies, some of the sector’s growth is enjoyed by co-operatives and community enterprises.
Co-operatives have been significant players in the growth of the sector. The largest and oldest operator in Europe, Mobility Carsharing in Switzerland, is owned by its members, who make up about 4% of the country’s drivers. There are also successful car sharing co-ops operating in Vancouver and San Francisco.
There are several local car clubs set up as co-ops in Britain, including Co-Cars Co-op, a growing car club with a low-emission fleet of 10 cars in and around Exeter, with more in other locations.
Co-Cars is the most dynamic of the car clubs in the sector – it recently ensured its services were more easily accessible by introducing self-service operations using telematics, utilising computer and telecommunications technology to provide residents and employers with an alternative to private car use.
Another co-op, West Wheels, is based in Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland, and serves communities in the Small Isles and the Knoydart Peninsula. It is one of a number of rural car clubs started with the support of the Scottish government through a programme run by Carplus, the national car clubs development organisation.
There are other small car sharing co-ops, but the challenges of financing entry to this market means there are currently no larger co-ops in the sector. The only national not-for-profit operator, Co-Wheels, which won the 2013 Environmental Social Enterprise award, is a community interest company.
There are many ways of getting from A to B, but sometimes trips using the car are most convenient. Shared cars, through car clubs, offer use of a locally based, accessible car and make it possible to live without needing a private or company car.
Add in more cycling and walking for short journeys, with public transport and occasional car rental, and it is possible to offer a portfolio of unbeatable travel choices. A growing number of travellers now recognise the part car clubs can play in achieving carbon reduction and improved local air quality.
Providing pay-as-you go, low and ultra-low emission shared cars encourages people to use other modes and reduces car dependency. But in the absence of a strategic approach, there are few places in Britain where car clubs and bike hire are part of mainstream measures, and almost nowhere where they offer effective inter-modality with public transport.
Dependency on private car use has well-documented consequences. Traffic congestion not only impedes economic activity, but also makes cities unhealthy, contributing to early deaths on a scale as dramatic as road accidents.
While car ownership continues to grow rapidly around the globe, there are real signs that the car is no longer a “must” for many younger people in European and North American cities – and a transport system that embraces sharing and co-operation alongside public transport will help reduce our dependency on the private car.
Chas Ball was a founder member of the Publications Distribution Co-op and then community co-ops officer at Highlands and Islands Development Board, Inverness and co-op development officer at Leeds City Council. He founded City Car Club, now the largest UK-owned car club operator, in 1999. He is currently chief executive of Carplus Trust, the national development organisation for car clubs.
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