Car Clubs

By the mid-century, 80% of people will be urban dwellers. Brand thinks this is good for both town and country. Nature will reclaim the countryside while cities will brim with creative ingenuity, because proximity is what generates prosperity.
- Matt Ridley, The Times

A younger generation in the US — unsure about finding a job after high school or college — is also far less likely to see car ownership as a rite of passage.
- Suzanne Goldenberg, 6 January 2010

There is mounting evidence to suggest that in the developed world, we have hit "peak cars". The number of cars in Japan has been in long-term decline since the 1990s, in the US there has been a net reduction in the number of cars over the last few years.

Rising fuel taxes, the economic downturn and uncertainty over what types of vehicle technology will dominate (electric, fuel cell or hybrid) have suppressed demand but the most important long-term trend is the fact that more and more of us are living in cities.

Even if you live in a city, cars can be incredibly useful for certain types of journey. But these types of journey are not the sort you take regularly. The average car owner uses their car less than one hour day - much less if you live in a city.

City dwellers have to weigh-up these limited benefits of car ownership against not only the price, but the hassle of ownership. And it's the latter that's the bigger issue, because driving has become relatively cheaper (compared with public transport and as a proportion of average income), year after year.

Whereas cars used to represent freedom, today they represent the hassle of parking, congestion, road tax, car crime, maintenance and a host of other irritations.

So cars are useful. Car ownership is a pain.

That's why car clubs are such a smart idea. They recognise that cars are very useful for some journeys that public transport is very bad at, but that we haven't got enough space in crowded cities for lots of cars. But we don't need lots of cars, because the ones we've got are used less than 1/24th of the time that they could be.

Car clubs like Streetcar and Zip Car are a godsend to Councils, who get paid for setting up bays too. They should be falling over themselves to create new bays for them, not just as part of new developments, but in established town centres like Brockley. We recently reported a planned expansion by Streetcar in Lewisham and we hope and expect that they will get all the support they need from the Council.

However, if car clubs help to free up more pavement-side space in the area, it creates a new problem - at least for the areas around stations like St Johns, Crofton Park, Ladywell and, in particular Brockley. Because fewer local people owning cars means more local parking, which is currently unregulated, which means more places being taken by commuters, driving in to the area from elsewhere, to take advantage of Zone 2 tube fares. It also means more spaces for van-hire companies that treat the area like their private lot, parking their grotty vehicles on residential streets and paying nothing for the privilege.

Parking enforcement in the area is still appalling in Brockley, with cars parked in the middle of pavements or double-parked at busy junctions on a regular basis. Why, we don't know, because dishing out a few tickets ought to be a money spinner and a vote winner for the Council. Vehicle rental companies ought not to be given planning permission to operate from any office they choose either.

So, when Lewisham Council is negotiating with the car clubs, they should be targeting areas like Brockley Cross, Coulgate Street and Brockley Road - giving prime spots to car clubs that perform a vital public service and pay their way. If that makes life more difficult for free-riders, so much the better.