London could lead a revolution in car use and car ownership over the next decade, by divorcing the two. It may soon be unnecessary to own a car to secure the full benefits of car ownership, due to a combination of continued improvement in public transport, the surge in app-based car hire services, and the growth of Zipcar-style car club schemes.
This could free up huge amounts of road space for cyclists, pedestrians and traders, slash the cost of mobility, and dramatically reduce pollution and carbon emissions. It is an exciting vision – waiting to be embraced by the next mayor of London.
Cars aren’t just clogging up London when they’re on the move – on average, they sit idle for 95 per cent of their lifetime, with 14 per cent of the city’s real estate occupied by parked cars. So much of London is a car park, and expensive and environmentally degrading assets are wasting away to provide an occasional mobility service for their owners.
Other cities are ahead of us in their public objective to separate “car mobility” from “car ownership”. Helsinki aims to make the city “car free” by 2025 by promoting “mobility as a service”, with better buses, and access to taxis and car sharing to replace ownership. However, in London the components needed to make car ownership truly pointless are most in evidence – and capable of rapid development.
First is the transformation in public transport. Car ownership is declining, and public transport use booming, thanks to a huge increase in the volume and reliability of bus, tube and rail services, and Oyster making them so much easier and more cost-effective to use. Four in ten households in London do not own a car. Crossrail is soon to open, and contactless payment is on the way. The big new policy needed now is to turn London’s overground rail services into a proper metro system, especially in south London where car usage is higher than in the north.
The second trend – advancing at astonishing speed – is taxis summoned by smartphone apps, at prices below Hackney cabs. Uber launched in the capital three years ago, and now provides taxis to the whole of inner London, and much of outer London, at a few minutes notice. In the US, it is piloting a new ride-sharing service called “UberPool”, allowing passengers to share journeys and split the cost. Bringing it to London would mean still cheaper journeys. Last month’s announcement of 100 new Hackney cab ranks will make them easier to access too.
Car sharing – through car clubs – is the least developed trend, but is essential to complete the process of making car ownership pointless. London’s car clubs have 140,000 members – still only a tiny proportion of Londoners.
Planning policy and service integration need to embrace car clubs and car sharing. Camden and Islington are requiring many new housing developments to be car free, with free car club membership instead. This should become the norm across inner London – and congested parts of outer London – in locations with good public transport. Boroughs need to provide more car-share bays, and TfL should integrate car clubs into Oyster.
A car ownership-free inner London, extending to much of outer London, could soon be a credible and exciting aspiration. All the benefits of car use; none of the hassle of car ownership.