The evolution of car ownership and use in our cities

James TaylorThe car sharing sector has become a global phenomenon and offers both personal convenience and societal benefits for its members and cities. It can predominantly be split into two different services: schemes operated by companies such as Zipcar that own a fleet of vehicles for rent on a flexible basis, and peer-to-peer options where owners rent their car to others. In the UK, Zipcar was first introduced in 2006 with the aim of pursuing one mission – to enable simple and responsible urban living. James Taylor, General Manager at Zipcar UK, recently shared with us his views on the adoption and benefits of car sharing, how car clubs can support the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion and what the future holds for shared mobility services and changing travel patterns.

In a nutshell, James describes Zipcar as “having flexible access to a car when you need it without the hassle of owning one.” He leads the UK business and manages the team to deliver the services of car sharing to its members as well as looking at how they can grow the service through building relationships with local authorities, particularly in London. His responsibilities include developing the business strategy to grow car sharing as a whole, not just for Zipcar and to make sure authorities and stakeholders understand the benefits of car sharing and the positive impacts it can have for members transitioning away from private car ownership.

Benefits of car sharing through Zipcar

The philosophy behind Zipcar (and car sharing) is to eliminate the hassle and cost of running a private car especially when you can get access to wheels on demand. The mission is to make member’s lives simpler, cheaper, greener, and our cities more liveable.

User benefits:

  1. Flexible access to a car without the hassle of maintaining and owning a private car (which often sits unused for residents in London)
  2. Avoids expensive asset ownership – the car rental service covers all maintenance, parking, and fuel costs within the membership
  3. Vehicles within the fleet are kept for a shorter period so they’re generally newer, cleaner cars.

Car sharing benefits in reducing congestion:

  1. Car sharing makes the cost of each individual trip more visible, making users more aware of the different choices available. Users can easily calculate the cost per minute/ hour and determine what the cheapest option would be for their journey, altering their overall transport behaviour.
  2. Research evidently suggests that car sharing reduces emissions by using the cleanest vehicles and EV’s. Data also suggests that Zipcar members walk, cycle, or use public transport more than the average Londoner creating positive impacts on cities and boroughs.
  3. Car sharing promotes a reduction in the overall number of vehicles on the roads as well as a reduction in the number of trips made, consequently reducing traffic congestion, and improving air quality.

What is Zipcar doing to encourage the use of Electric Vehicles (EVs)?

“We set a bold vision back in 2018 to be fully electric by 2025 and our first step towards that goal was introducing 325 EVs into our Flex fleet.” James explains the reason behind adopting EVs into the Flex fleet first rather than the round-trip fleet was simply down to the trips being shorter, hence more suited for an earlier transition to EVs due to the current range values of an EV. The on-demand availability also makes it easier to manage the EVs, ensuring they are charged and not affecting future bookings.

There are two factors that Zipcar needs to consider when introducing EVs. Firstly, how members respond to using EVs within their fleet and secondly how Zipcar responds in terms of an operational perspective to manage an EV fleet. The first few years have shown an incredibly strong uptake; over 55,000 members have driven EVs over 3 million zero emission miles during that time, indicating that members evidently appreciate driving them. “We know anecdotally that the motivation behind many members joining is to test out EVs and so we are playing a significant role in introducing EVs to people for the first time, helping them overcome any concerns,” James confidently states. Nonetheless, the operational aspect and overall management for Zipcar is still a learning curve – the recharging process is managed internally and currently works well with a small fleet however, as the percentage of EVs increase, the company will need to investigate alternative methods, such as members recharging vehicles during or at the end of their rental period.

The rate of EV growth is dependent on cities having the right infrastructure in place and while there has been a focus on improving residential charging, there is a need to take into account the impact of car clubs or fleet owners who don’t have dedicated EV charging infrastructure. James recognises that a limiting factor to electrifying the round-trip offering can be the coverage and type of infrastructure that currently exist not just in London but also in other areas of the UK, where members travel to. For example, rapid and ultra-rapid chargers will be essential for car club customers to recharge the vehicles themselves. Trickle or slow chargers would just simply take too long, and means that a large percentage of the fleet would be dormant at key points in time. Even if this were to occur overnight, this would not logistically work if a customer were en-route somewhere and just needed a top-up charge to complete their journey. 

Car clubs supporting the ULEZ expansion

The forthcoming ULEZ expansion in October 2021 should encourage Londoners who own a non-compliant car to consider alternatives. TfL has calculated that 20% of London’s privately owned vehicles won’t comply with the extended ULEZ. ULEZ expansion could present a key moment in time to achieve a systemic shift away from private ownership.

Car clubs can play a massive role in supporting whether users opt to buying a privately owned compliant vehicle (which doesn’t solve the congestion dilemma) or changing their travel behaviour to make use of car sharing services alongside other forms of transport such as walking and cycling. Collectively, the sector works closely to discuss, support, and take action working with authorities, particularly Transport for London which heavily promotes walking, cycling and public transport, all of which Zipcar can help to accelerate.

“Zipcar match funded the scrappage scheme when the central London ULEZ was first introduced by the Mayor of London to help support and compensate for scrapping an old, polluting vehicle. The scrappage money could be used towards credit when becoming a Zipcar member and we match funded that amount.” James is keen to work with local authorities and TfL to see more incentives like this being put in place to encourage people to make the switch.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) deliver genuine benefits for all residents, creating more space for walking and cycling to allow people to travel safely especially during the pandemic. The challenge is getting boroughs to communicate with car clubs on plans such as LTN to ensure the benefits of shared cars are prioritised over private cars to help support the delivery of schemes like this, James admits. “There’s also some disconnect between policymakers and authorities when it comes to accepting the role car clubs can play. It’s important for policies to be introduced that recognise the clear-cut differences of owning and sharing a car and the impacts it can have on people making that switch. I would love to see more car sharing operators in London, and increased competition means more awareness towards car clubs (helping them become more mainstream).”

The future of car clubs and changing travel patterns

Given lockdowns continue, car clubs like many businesses are taking a hit with members following Government rules and undertaking little to no travel during these periods. James touches on the impact this has previously had on the business during the two previous London lockdowns in March and November last year. However, Zipcar is hopeful that car sharing will not only bounce back but will have an even bigger role to play as people look for more sustainable transport choices. In the short term, the sector has benefitted, with large volumes of new members joining as they looked for alternatives to public transport during the pandemic. The hope is that this will lead to long term benefits as members continue to use car sharing alongside walking, cycling and public transport. While James is confident seeing this travel behaviour change, he also recognises there’s a big risk in people who didn’t previously own a car now considering private car ownership during the pandemic. “The key challenge is minimising users from making this purchase and actively showing them that car sharing is a viable, better alternative than buying a car.”

Car sharing is well placed to grow, and COVID-19 has certainly heightened the awareness and benefits of what car sharing can achieve for authorities, cities, and its members. While positive relationships and conversations are forming, it’s still not quite reached a policy decision-making stage and there’s much work yet to be done around getting these policies in place.

James assures us that travel will be different by 2030. The green industrial revolution will bring a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, changing travel behaviour and prompting people to make a change prior to this. The car club sector is already a few steps ahead of this curve with the use of EV fleets, and by 2030 all car club fleets will fully adopt EVs. It would be amazing to see car clubs continue to grow in other major cities and towns across the UK with many more members, bringing an overall reduction of the number of vehicles on the road. James expresses, “the only way to support that change in a positive way is by working with the policymakers, lawmakers and authorities to demonstrate the impact of car sharing so that we are included as part of that wider conversation rather than being an afterthought. We need to be stronger as a sector and be bold, loud and proud of what we can deliver.”


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