“A car club for Witney?”

September 23rd, 2010 by J-P Leave a reply »

Cars are greener if they're car-club carsThis was the provocative title of the recent talk from Cliff Jordan of Oxcar, a car club founded in East Oxford in 2008. You might think the answer would be an easy “yes”, as there’s clearly a lot of people who like their cars in Witney, but he wasn’t talking about a car appreciation club, but something entirely different. So what are car clubs; how do they work in practice; and could Witney have its own car club?

The what

Car clubs are a way for many people to have common use of enough shared cars to satisfy their needs. You might own a “whole” car, or two “whole” cars: but you probably only use the one car to justify maybe two thirds of the purchase price or less; or that second car might only be really used one or two days a month, so it’s only a tenth of a car. While your car is idle, you still have to pay insurance and worry about depreciation. But with a car club you pay by the hour and/or mile, and can even lease your existing cars to the local scheme on a yearly basis, requiring the scheme to handle your MOT, insurance and maintenance.

By joining a car club you get access to a pool of cars, ideally one or two available within walking distance, which you can book out for hourly or mileage-based fees. It’s broadly like a car-hire system, but with the cars dispersed around town and with low costs: Oxcar charges its members £3 per hour, no more than £24 for a 24-hour period; drivers also incur a fee of 15p/mile, which covers petrol costs. People who lease their cars get benefits like 60 free hours per month and the option to book their leased car for further time at standard rates.

Clubs can be run completely voluntarily: everyone involved can just agree to share a communal car. One of the other attendees mentioned they used to do that very thing on their street in the 1980s, purely because sharing between neighbours seemed a neighbourly thing to do. Clubs can also partner with a bigger organization (which we’ll talk about below). With some initial setup, the organization takes on the burdens of maintenance and obtaining payment, while also making its running costs (if it’s a not-for-profit) out of the scheme. Alternatively, if individuals can’t find or organize a local car club, there exist commercial enterprises in bigger cities—Zipcar, Streetcar, Citycar and Hertz—who run equivalent schemes. The involvement of big business makes car clubs feel like a real going concern.

The how

Cliff explained that no two car clubs are the same. They’re not a legal entity, although local car clubs do partner with not-for-profit community interest companies (CICs)—Oxcar is a scheme run in partnership with Commonwheels—and shift some of the legal burdens onto a “standardized” scheme where club members and anyone leasing their own cars to the scheme make contracts with the CIC.

They would typically take payments for themselves, but Commonwheels for one is looking into providing a share scheme for local members in the future. Regardless: if the CIC handles equipping (based on a starter fee), maintaining, leasing, MOTs, taxing, and payment retrieval; and also provides a booking system; then it’s generally worth getting them involved anyway.

For a potential partnered scheme, the big difficulty is attracting the CIC. He mentioned six broad requirements that might tempt a CIC if the relevant information were made available to them:

  • Enthusiastic champion(s): the scheme would need a core of dedicated and interested people to overcome inertia.
  • Local knowledge: different places present different challenges and historical traffic knowledge, and knowing and demonstrating this reduces the risk.
  • Publicity: press, posters, leaflets, email networks, word-of-mouth, etc.
  • Cars: a minimum of two to start with (then there’s always another option if one is booked). Need to be presentable, reliable, with central locking and immobiliser if possible.
  • Parking locations: these need to be safe, accessible at all times, and convenient for members and potential members.
  • Cash: a startup fee of around £1,000 per car, on top of the car itself, to provide equipment and commissioning the vehicle ready for its first booking.

A Commonwheels Nissan outside the Corn Exchange: the future?Where does all this come from, you might ask? Well, as each scheme is different, then the short answer is: that depends…!

But it’s not an insurmountable task—Oxcar and other schemes around the country demonstrate that—and Cliff mentioned some ways that a nascent scheme could get together the relevant “bait”. Cars and parking could be provided by well-meaning or sympathetic businesses, or just businesses that don’t need their own vehicle fleet outside certain hours. Commonwheels, being based in Sunderland, has a deal with the local Nissan plant for cheap cars. National charities like Car Plus exist to provide advice and support. And there was also mention by someone of OCVA. But it would certainly take work to put a portfolio together to attract a CIC.

Just as there are no standard schemes, there are no clear rules for when you expand. To make a scheme pay Cliff estimated you needed around forty hours per week per vehicle; but also that based on the decision to buy a new car whenever Oxcar’s entire pool happened to be in use, the scheme seemed to need around a car per twenty-five people right now. But starting a scheme seemed to need a dedicated team of around eight or ten people, some good research, and enough backing to interest a CIC.

The could?

Witney provides its own challenges for setting up a car club, although it’s probably difficult setting up such clubs anywhere. A successful scheme, attractive to a CIC, would first of all need research—leafleting and time spent in Witney library—guarantees of money, and lots of time and effort. But the CICs are there if Witney can attract one, and as car clubs are intended to eventually be run as going concerns, then there are both short-term and long-term benefits to be had.

Car clubs are a big saving for some individuals, but they also provide a common good. Cliff mentioned that the most obvious improvement, based on surveys conducted within existing schemes, is that for every car-club car on the road, members typically sell or otherwise get rid of anywhere between eight and twenty cars: that equates to around 500 fewer cars in Oxford thanks to Oxcar! And that means less parking problems and less congestion. In addition, he mentioned the normalizing effect of owning a car and having it to hand in the driveway: if you’re having to think about every journey, you’re more likely to walk, cycle or take public transport, which has benefits for health, the environment and resource use.

But he also hinted at the broader, more nebulous common good: car clubs provide social cohesion, and change our relationships both with cars and each other. They provide people on low income with the freedom of an occasional car without the cost of a whole car, and they provide people on comfortable incomes with the freedom to escape from an unhealthy relationship with their vehicle. A car club could make Witney a quieter, calmer, friendlier, healthier, more socially aware town. But could we make it happen?



  1. tom says:

    I was sorry I couldn’t come to the talk, but this is a great write-up; thanks very much, J-P!

    What are the next steps? Should people comment here to register their interest? I’m interested, although I may not be an ideal participant because I live a few miles outside Witney.

  2. Kevin says:

    Hi Tom. Taking the Oxcar start-up as a template we need to get the finance together for, and/or donation of, at least two cars and demonstrate a demand for them.

    Interest can be registered here, in the forum, on the Facebook page, via the contact form or directly at admin@sustainablewitney.org.uk – I’ll put you on the list 😮

    We’re meeting on Wednesday 6th October at The Plough and the Car Club Project will be a main item for discussion. I don’t know how successful it will be in (and around) Witney, but I think it has a lot of potential.

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