Car sharing isn’t compulsory – but is it the sustainable transport hack of the future?

Compulsory car-sharing has been officially scrapped by the prime minister. The announcement took many in transport circles by surprise, since the only place in the known world where the practice has ever been mandatory is communist Cuba; there were no proposals to adopt it in the UK.

Yet perhaps Rishi Sunak’s surprise pledge might encourage travellers to look again at car sharing as an option on environmental and economic grounds.

These are the key questions and answers.

What does car sharing mean?

Either the vehicle is shared on some kind of rota basis, or the journey is shared, with the driver joined by other people.

Examples of the first kind are as fundamental as a couple or family sharing a single car, with people taking turns to use the vehicle. Now, though, there are commercial organisations who will put car owners keen on a bit of extra cash in touch with people who want the use of a car for a few hours or days.

Companies that do this include Toro and Hiyacar.

There is some overlap with the many “street hire” schemes such as Zipcar and Enterprise Car Club where vehicles (often vans as well as cars) are available on a first-come, first-served basis from a roadside near you. Payment is usually by the hour.

However, most people understand car sharing to mean inviting others to join the driver – also known as car pooling.

A brief history of car pooling?

The oldest form is the ad hoc practice of hitchhiking – which remains the least environmentally damaging form of motorised transport. The passenger hops in for a portion of the journey that the driver would be making anyway. Curiously, hitchhiking is safer than it has ever been, but at the same time increasingly a minority sport.

Communist countries have deployed official car pooling schemes. Until Poland gained its independence, motorists were encouraged to give lifts using a voucher scheme: the hitchhiker would buy a book of coupons for various journey lengths and hand over the appropriate value at the end of the ride. The driver could then redeem them for prizes.

Cuba took a rather more heavy handed approach. Official traffic monitors, dressed in yellow and known as amarillos, were assigned to main roads leaving towns and cities. They would instruct all official vehicles to stop and take as many passengers as they could from the gathered crowd.

In 1973, special lanes for “high occupancy vehicles” were introduced in the US, offering faster journeys for cars with multiple occupants. This move encouraged car pooling – and even led to a practice known as “slugging” where people in need of a lift into a busy city would stand at an appointed location and wait for motorists in a hurry to pick them up in order to use the fast lans.

In Europe, organisations including Allostop of France and Mitfahrzentrale of Germany (now MiFaZ) were set up to connect drivers with passengers on longer journeys. BlaBlaCar of France is now the highest profile ride-sharing organisation.

How does BlaBlaCar work?

The boast is: “Find the perfect ride from our wide range of destinations and routes at low prices.”

Drivers who want company or (more likely) a contribution to the costs of a journey register online with BlaBlaCar, and post details of their intended trip.

Prospective passengers can search for journeys that match their plans and are quoted a price. For example, looking a day ahead for a London-Manchester ride, one offer is with someone travelling from Sussex to Glasgow, who can offer the M25 to M6 segment for £28; another is from Ealing in the west of the capital to central Manchester for £29.

That’s cheaper than the train …

Yes, but not as cheap as the coach, with competing services on National Express, Megabus and Flixbus. In addition, you have little choice in departure times: the latter ride is set to leave at 9pm and arrive after midnight in Manchester.

Is it safe?

BlaBlaCar says: “We take the time to get to know each of our members and bus partners. We check reviews, profiles and IDs, so you know who you’re travelling with and can book your ride at ease on our secure platform.”

But while the risk of personal attack can be reduced, the wider dangers of road travel are higher than (say) on a coach driven by a professional.

Who is proposing compulsory car sharing?

Nobody. It is a proposal invented by the government so that it could be scrapped. The independent Climate Change Committee said in 2021: “Shared mobility (eg shared cars and shared trips) can also reduce car travel demand. These are uncertain but our scenarios assume that there is scope for average car occupancy to increase”.

They noted that “High-occupancy vehicle lanes are one example of local interventions that can encourage car-sharing”. They proposed that “a variety of shared mobility innovations could play a role in increasing occupancy. These include car clubs, real-time ridesharing apps and ride-pooling.”

What is the future for car sharing?

It may be tied up with autonomous vehicles or even eVTOL pilotless planes. But on-demand bus sharing, as trialled by a London company named Snap, may also increase: the idea is that coaches run only when there is sufficient demand.