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Driving in London: Affordable & Practical with Car Clubs

BY Boon Koh
Published 31 January 2012

Owning a car in London can be extremely impractical, especially for working professionals with no kids and living in a place with no free on-street or off-street parking. Plus, for those who are under a certain age, even if you did have regular use for a car, the car insurance would cost over a thousand pounds a year.

I faced this dilemma and had my bubble burst after passing my driving test in June last year. Pricing up some car insurance quotes online, I found that the cheapest I could get, for even the lousiest Citreon C1 with on-street parking in a nice neighbourhood still came up to around £1,200 for the cheapest quote. That’s alot of money – especially since it would mainly be used only on the weekends, as I work in central London. Driving to work would mean parking in central London – near impossible.

So I explored car clubs. These sound as though they are small neighbourhood associations that share a car, kind of like borrowing a neighbour’s car for a trip once in a while. But they are rapidly growing companies, with huge fleets of small city cars, scattered across London. Where I live, the two biggest car clubs are ZipCar and City Car Club.

The car closest to me by City Car Club was a Fiat 500. The closest ZipCar to me was a Volkswagen Golf, although there was also a BMW 1 Series just marginally further away. Rental is done by the hour – so £5.20 an hour for City Car Club’s Fiat 500, and £6 an hour for ZipCar’s VW Golf. Not that expensive – but if you’re planning to rent for a whole day (i.e. 24 hours), it is still cheaper to go with traditional car hire firms offering day rates of between £20 and £40.

But for short journeys of a few hours, perhaps to go to IKEA, grocery shopping, or visiting a friend, car clubs are not too bad value for money. Plus, you’re bound to find a car from a car club within a few minutes walk of where you live in London, meaning not having to make a big trek to the nearest car rental office (mostly near airports).

However, car clubs are also not for the “opportunist” driver wanting a backup “in case” option of a car. Membership to a car club typically costs £50 a year, so if you just end up renting a car once or twice during that year, that’s a really expensive membership. City Car Club or ZipCar are probably suited if you plan to use a car more than 10 times a year.

So do have a look at car clubs – both ZipCar and City Car Club have small cars that will allow you to enter central London as well free of charge, as the cars are Congestion Charge exempt. What are the differences between the two? Mainly just types of car, slight differences in pricing, and location. And if you’re looking for a bit more choice, a new player has just entered the market: Green Wheels. However, they only have a small number of cars at the moment, making them poor value for their £49 yearly membership fee.

Do bear in mind though that you must have had your driving licence for more than a year, and typically over the age of 25, to join these car clubs – so if you’re under 25 or just passed your driving test, it might be back to asking your parents to be added to their insurance policies. Or renting from traditional car hire firm Enterprise, who do provide car hire to people who have just qualified for their driving license, as long as you’re over 25.