We’ve not owned a car for around seven years now. But that’s not to say I never drive – on average we hire a car around once a month. Sometimes for weekends, often for holidays, and on the odd occasion for work.
It works well for us. Neither of us routinely needs a car for work – and our journeys to work are pretty easily made on the bike or on the bus. My son, whose seven years at school have coincided with those seven car free years, walks the 30 minute journey to school.
There’s lots that I like about organising how we get around in this way. I like the fact that, by and large, we choose the most appropriate mode of transport for each journey. So when walking makes most sense, we walk. When cycling fits the bill, we get the bikes out. Heading into town as a family? The bus, usually. Longer weekend journeys? The train when it makes most sense (practically and financially) – and if not, a hire car. A small, cheap car if it’s just us, and a bigger car or van if we need the extra room for bikes, Christmas presents or camping gear.
— Rob Greenland (@TheSocBiz) September 9, 2016
Compare that with what tends to happen when you own a car. It’s sat there on the drive, waiting to be driven (some studies suggest they spend up to 95% of their life doing nothing). So when you need to go somewhere, the car is the obvious choice. It appears convenient, and it appears cheap. £4.30 return for a 2 mile bus journey – or perhaps a notional 20p in fuel to drive? It’s obvious what choice most people will make – even if the true cost per mile is much higher.
I would say that is one of the main problems with our current ownership model for cars. Individual ownership makes traveling in a car the default choice for most journeys many of us make in cities – when, for some of those journeys at least, another mode of transport would be better all ways round.
So I’m hopeful that over time we’ll move away from individual ownership of cars – and move more towards a model where we “buy mobility”. This is the emerging Mobility As A Service model where, easily organised via your phone, it’s easy to jump on the bus, book a taxi, pick up a dockless bike, hire a car for an hour, buy a train ticket – whichever mode of transport makes most sense for that particular journey. In a small, low-tech, much-more-difficult-than-it-needs-to-be way, that’s what we currently do as a family. And on balance, I love it.
But today I’m focusing on cars – prompted by a tweet from car hire company Sixt.
Cyclists! Want to go faster? Ditch the bike and get in the 4 Series Gran Coupe with the M-Sport package to experience a real performance boost! https://t.co/ZoepjcuEKU #DriveSmug pic.twitter.com/UzSnTrPV1B
— Sixt UK (@SixtUK) March 5, 2018
I’m not pretending I was “offended” or anything like that. I just thought it was a poor piece of marketing. In large part, because of what I’ve outlined above.
I am 100% their target customer. I don’t own a car and spend over a grand a year on car hire. And, in their eyes, I’m a “cyclist” – the customer group they’ve clumsily targeted.
But that’s where they’re wrong. I am not a cyclist. I am someone who wants to get from A to B, and I choose the most appropriate way to do that. I mainly cycle precisely because for the majority of my journeys, (peak time commutes in Leeds) it’s the quickest option. I want to go faster. Effortlessly gliding past queues of stationery cars and getting to work on time is the ultimate performance boost.
Yet I do need a car from time to time, and whilst I’m very happy with a lot of the service I get from the hire companies I routinely use (in particular the consistently excellent staff at Avis in Leeds), it fascinates me that they don’t better serve the regular, “multimodal” hirer. This clumsy piece of marketing points to a wider inability to make the most of a growing customer group.
For example, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve turned up a car hire places, on my bike, and asked where the bike parking is. I find it bizarre that they seem surprised that someone, who, by definition, is in need of a car at that precise moment, may have turned up by another mode of transport.
If they thought it through properly, there’d be all sorts of other opportunities too. More electric and hybrid cars are an obvious thing to think about. Reviewing the classification of cars – and giving people the option of not having a diesel car (it’s still often sold to you as a premium vehicle – because of better fuel economy) could be good too. As would not always assuming that an upgrade (to a bigger, more expensive to run car) is what the customer wants. A bigger car is sometimes handy, but I’m buying mobility, not a mobile status symbol. And don’t get me started on the hard-sell of Collision Damage Waiver insurance….
I care about this because I can see the enormous potential of easier access to on-demand cars, rather than ownership of them. Our cities could be transformed if more of us chose the most appropriate mode of transport for our journeys, rather than routinely jumping into the car. We could also stop wasting so much of our disposable income on an asset that sits idle more than half the time. And I think there are big business opportunities for the companies that get their heads around this emerging market and serve it well.