A Streetcar named Elaine
Two nights ago I walked into to a dingy nineteen-sixties public car park on Mitchell Street in Glasgow. Climbing to the first floor, I was met with the sight that would bring horror to most car owners. My parking space was empty. There was a large BMW shaped hole where my BMW should have been.
Not to panic though. I just fired up an iPhone app, which routed a call for me to speak to a nice man in a London call centre. He told me that due the designated bay being occupied at the time, the car had been parked four levels up by the last person who used it. And sure enough, after a short ride in an intimidatingly vandal proof elevator, I found my bright blue BMW 1 Series parked on the fifth floor.
This was, as you might have guessed, not my BMW. It belongs to Streetcar, a British car sharing club that has recently gained international attention having been acquired by the American car sharing giant Zipcar. Thanks to a recent favourable enrollment promotion, I’ve become a member of Streetcar just in time to see it rebranded as Zipcar. Presumably the little non-recyclable plastic smart card they sent me (with its own non-recyclable plastic wallet and non-recyclable laminated cardboard welcome pack) and the plastic parking bay signs will all have to be re-issued in due course. You can see the environmental benefits of car sharing already.
At least the impressive iPhone app won’t need much work to be re-branded from Streetcar blue to Zipcar green.
If you’re unfamiliar with how car sharing works, it’s pretty simple. Rather than owning car that sits unused most of the day, Streetcar members have access to several hundred cars and vans dotted around Britain’s largest cities. Members (who normally pay £60/year) can book one by the hour, day, week or month by phone, internet or smartphone app. I booked my Beemer – named Elaine, incidentally – at just five minutes notice. When you get to the car, your membership card or iPhone app can unlock the vehicle, and you’ll find the keys in the glove box. Thirty miles per calendar day and all the petrol you need are included in the hourly, daily or weekly rates (a payment card is nestled in the handheld device that releases the key). A VW Polo costs £4.95/hour or £49.50/day, while a BMW 1 Series costs £6.95/hour or £69.50/day. Current promotions include £1/hour discounts during the early evening and £20 6pm – 9am overnight rentals, the latter of which persuaded me to have my first spin in the Beemer. There are just ten cars here in Glasgow right now, although that number should grow soon, and hopefully will grow outwards from the city centre. Streetcar bays aren’t generally on public streets outside London, so secure and easily accessible off-street parking is usually needed. Most vehicles are parked in city centre car parks, which isn’t particularly handy for suburban or inner-suburban residents, although there are three very close to Glasgow Central station. I’m actively petitioning Streetcar to bring some to the inner Southside, one of the city’s lowest car-owning neighbourhoods, but until then, this will have to do.
The experience so far has been almost entirely positive. The cars are new 2010 models with low mileages and clean interiors. Members who get them dirty are invited to use the petrol payment card in the car to buy car wash and vacuuming tokens whenever needed, and so far it seems that Glasgow’s members are looking after their cars. Either that, or there aren’t many of us. Watching my iPhone app here and in London during my last visit, there seems to be very good short notice availability for cars compared to the capital. Perhaps the £1/hour and £20 overnight promotions are there to encourage more use of the cars we’ve got.
Living in the city, and surviving on a modest budget, we have absolutely no need of our own car. Over the last two years we’ve used a variety of rental companies to borrow cars for 24 hour periods: just long enough to get to Ikea or B&Q, and come home and regret our fiscal excesses. The daily Streetcar rate works out roughly comparable to the costs of renting from a major rental company, perhaps even cheaper when you include the cost of fuel. The limited 30 mile daily mileage allowance with Streetcar is, a problem, however. Streetcars are clearly marketed for inner-city use on short rentals: you only get greater mileage allowances if you go for a more than 72 hours. I very nearly max-ed out the daily mileage allowance driving out to an suburban courier depot to collect a mysterious and as-yet unclaimed package (note to DHL: try buzzing our apartment, knocking on our door or perhaps pushing the card through our letterbox next time).
The biggest problem I have with Streetcar, however, is the choice of vehicles. Here in Glasgow we’ve got four VW Polos and six BMW 1 Series. The former are fantastic little cars – beautifully designed and made, very nippy and ideal for urban driving. But the BMWs are insane choices for a car club. Only marginally larger in terms of passenger and luggage space, they have dreadful visibility and an rock solid ride. It seems bizarre that a car sharing club – ostensibly designed for people who are not seduced by the cachet of owning a car – should choose a car that is so ostentatious and yet so compromised as a city car. What’s more, Elaine, my Mitchell Street Streetcar, was not a base model 1 Series, but a performance-oriented M Sport model. On a £20 overnight promotion, I enjoyed bouncing around Glasgow in this lively and sporty little car, but the leather sports seats were desperately uncomfortable, and the rigid suspension was completely unsuited to our poorly maintained and potholed city streets.
There is also a longer term calculation to be made. On the deal that enrolled me to Streetcar, I’m basically getting membership for free. The costs are limited to the hourly or daily rental fees (and my third party excess insurance, which covers me in the event of damaging occurring to the car and Streetcar lifting £750 from my credit card). If I were to take into account the normal cost of membership plus the rental charges, I’d be hard pressed to say Streetcar is better value than the five to six car and van rentals I’ve made in the last year from the likes of Hertz, Europcar or Arnold Clark. And I will continue to need them, because Streetcar don’t have any vans in Glasgow (and looking to cities where they do, they’re very poor value compared to most rental companies’ daily van rental rates). There is no doubt at all that Streetcar can be a lot cheaper than owning a car, but I remain unconvinced that it’s the best choice for non-car owners who want a more convenient form of occasional car rental.