Car Clubs - facilitating reduced car ownership

Optima Baron recumbent bicycle leaning against a white Nissan Leaf with a Co-Wheels Birmingham logo

As someone who gave up a car ownership in favour of cycling as my primary means of transport some years ago, one of the things people ask me from time to time is "But what about when you need to do X?".  The answer depends on what X might be - with a trailer, tandem or cargo bike (possibly including electric assist), some bungee cords and a bit of imagination there's surprisingly little you can't transport locally by cycle.  But sometimes a car really is the best tool for the job.  And in those situations, what I tend to do is ... use a car.

I've been a member of the Co-Wheels car club for a few years now.  This is a national scheme that operates as a social enterprise, providing cars for hire in areas that haven't historically been served well by commercial car clubs.  They currently have nine cars and one van available for hourly or daily hire in the central and south Birmingham area.

Their daily hire rates are comparable to traditional car hire companies, but the car club system is vastly more convenient: You only need to go through the credit check and licence details paperwork when you first join the club, at which point they issue you with a membership card.  From then on, you can simply book a hire period using their website, walk up to the car at the start of your hire period and wave your card at the reader on the windscreen, at which point the car will unlock and you can drive it away.

As with traditional car hire, fully-comprehensive insurance is included, though the excess for an at-fault collision is fairly hefty.  This can be reduced by purchasing an additional policy, either from Co-Wheels or a third-party provider of car hire excess insurance.  Combustion-engined vehicles are provided with a fuel card, and users are encouraged to fill the tank at no direct cost (Co-Wheels bill you by the mile driven, which includes the cost of the fuel you actually use; electric vehicles are zero-rated for mileage) - there's no need to worry about being charged an outrageous fee for returning the car with slightly less fuel than it started with.  And perhaps most usefully, you can collect or return a car at any time of day or night, without wasting hours hanging around for hire company staff to fail to get it ready and try to up-sell you a larger vehicle.

This makes it ideal for those infrequent journeys where you need to transport a load of garden waste, family weekends away, visits to destinations poorly served by public transport, and the like.  As I have a cycle trailer, I rarely use the cars for carrying loads locally, but I occasionally have to visit another city with a boot full of tools and equipment, for which a small, efficient car is ideal.  My partner and I regularly use the Co-Wheels cars for weekends away for cycling and camping adventures.  As she is a disabled person who rides a recumbent tricycle and cannot lift heavy items, the Train Operating Companies' failure to cater for the needs of disabled cyclists means that traveling by train with our cycles sadly isn't an option.  I use the cars to get to British Human Power Club events where public transport isn't a practical option, especially when I'm been responsible for transporting the bulky electronic race timing equipment.  I recently used the van to transport an adjustable bed, and I've also used co-wheels at short notice for accompanying a friend to medical appointments without the anxiety of public transport or taxis.

One of the less obvious benefits of using hire cars for these sorts of infrequent journeys is that I simply don't have to worry about car things in between them.  I don't have any off-street parking, so if I owned a car I'd be wasting space and jostling with all the other car-users on my road for somewhere to store it.  Vandalism of vehicles is common here, so that's another thing I don't have to worry about, along with MOTs, servicing, insurance, VED and worrying if the battery is flat after not driving for weeks at a time.  It also means I can choose an appropriately sized vehicle for the task in hand, and use more expensive lower-emissions cars than I could ever justify owning (it's thanks to Co-Wheels that I was able to experience driving electric cars as far back as 2015).

As my non-local travel has mostly stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my car costs have dropped to the £5/month Co-Wheels membership fee.  Beats paying to insure or hire-purchase a car that's doing nothing but slowly discharging its battery and depreciating.

Co-wheels certainly isn't the only car club, and I know some of the mainstream commercial car clubs are now serving the West Midlands, so it's worth investigating the other options if having vehicles available close to where you live is important.  Of course if you have a bicycle - especially one that folds or has easily-removed wheels - it's easy to use that to collect and return vehicles anywhere within a couple of miles.  I reckon a Brompton is as natural a companion to a hire car as it is to a train.



Optima Baron recumbent bicycle with race number 597 leaning against a white Nissan Leaf with a Co-Wheels Birmingham logo on the door panel
Human power meets electric power: The Co-Wheels Birmingham Nissan Leaf EV at the 2018 World Human Powered Vehicle Association championships in Kent, with Pushbikes member Kim's low-racer recumbent leaning against it.


A white Toyota Yaris parked in a camping field next to a white 3-person tent
A Co-Wheels Toyota Yaris hybrid being used on a camping trip in North-West England


A white Nissan Leaf attached to an Electric Highway CHAdeMo rapid charger at a motorway service station
Co-Wheels Nissan Leaf electric car plugged into an Electric Highway rapid-charger at a motorway service station. The blue Co-Wheels RFID card reader (which performs the function of a car key) is visible in the corner of the windscreen.