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The role of car clubs in achieving London's sustainable transport future

London has experienced shifts in the way people experience mobility, with the most recent shift being away from car ownership and towards lower-carbon transport options. Pressures surrounding car ownership have been increasing, especially those with concerns around air pollution, C02 emissions, lack of parking spaces, and the rising costs of car upkeep. The UK Government has also contributed to these pressures, by introducing new systems of taxation for car users in London – the Ultra Low Emission Zone – and highlighting its new policy decisions surrounding UK green transport in its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, a set of plans developed so that the UK can ‘Build Back Better’ post COVID-19.

Studies have shown that cars are central to the fabric of daily life, and social patterns, city infrastructure and economic institutions have all been centred around the private automobile. With this form of mobility so entrenched into societal structures, people are often unwilling to adopt ‘pro-environmental behaviours’, such as reducing car use, despite knowing of its negative externalities. It’s clear that more than just government intervention is needed to decrease car use, and there needs to be a societal shift in people’s values and attitudes.

Most of the research on the problem of cars has focused on environmental issues, without considering the social implications of car use, which includes car use fuelling social isolation, individualism and even rightward shifts in political ideology. However, despite these environmental and social problems, cars are still needed to transport items that may not be compatible with public transport, and trains and busses may not be accessible to everyone or suit their mobility needs.

A promising solution to this urban automobile problem is the emergence of car clubs – a fleet of cars owned by a company distributed through London and accessed via an app. This concept challenges interpretations of private mobility in London, granting the potential to encourage lower carbon living whilst still being accessible to many, and adding societal value. This is why I was interested in researching the role of car clubs in achieving London’s sustainable transport future for my master’s dissertation

Understanding the public sentiment towards car clubs

I wanted to investigate what people value in their mobility choices, and how this aligned with the benefits promoted by the car clubs and other public sector stakeholders.

For this research, I conducted a content analysis of eight public and private sector stakeholder communication documents, such as from the UK Government and from car club companies, to see what benefits of car clubs were highlighted and promoted.

With the results of this analysis, I created six promotional pieces for a hypothetical car club - each themed around one of the benefits found. These were:

  • Benefits for the local environment
  • Benefits for the global environment
  • Benefits for the community
  • Convenience
  • Economic Benefits
  • Being innovative and looking to the future

To understand which of these benefits people based in London valued and any barriers they face to using car clubs, I reached out to people online and then conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 people.

Car club promo - Phoebe Dawes dissertation

One of my hypothetical car club promotional pieces centred on innovation.

Through these, I found that there was a huge misalignment between the benefits that are framed and promoted between the public and private sector and between what benefits the public value.

For example, the private sector primarily framed car clubs as benefiting communities, whilst the public sector focussed on convenience. The people I interviewed, however, saw car clubs as a positive change for the future, highlighting how by using a car club they would be part of a new era of green public transport.

Whilst the public had high levels of environmental concern, there are psychological and social barriers preventing them from making the switch to a car club. These ranged from concerns around insurance to cleanliness (especially given the pandemic) and the availability of cars.

There was wide support for government intervention, and it was clear that further work must be done by car clubs and governmental bodies to incite a societal shift in attitudes.

Car club in London

Increasing car club use in London

Following on from my research, I created policy recommendations. These aim to meet the needs and values of the government, car clubs and the public, whilst increasing car club uptake in London.

These are:

  • The UK Government should introduce a ‘green expenditure’ relief fund for car clubs to offset the cost of implementing an electric vehicle fleet: This would help the government work towards its aim of ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 (HM Government, 2020:14).
  • Local authorities should work with car clubs to develop a strategy to decide where car club parking bays should be placed: Ensuring more cars are a short walk away for people and expanding electric car charging infrastructure.
  • There should be an increase of car club funding in London as part of the existing subsidies to the University of London: The creation of a student car club partnership scheme would encourage students to not bring their cars into the city.
  • The government should provide a future tax incentive for car clubs if they meet certain goals: This could include increasing uptake or increasing how many of their cars are electric.
  • Local authorities should work with car clubs to introduce a ‘refer a friend’ scheme: This partnership could involve the council providing financial credit to both parties in the referral exchange or working with car clubs to distribute literature to help people promote the car club to friends.

With more people buying electric vehicles, we’re already seeing a transport revolution take place, and I hope that as part of this relatively new transport modes, like car clubs, will continue to increase in popularity. The government and car clubs working together, however, will play an important role in enabling the rollout of cleaner transport, by ensuring it is accessible and affordable for all.

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