Do I Need to Own a Car? And the Future of Mobility.
I love cars - always have. I’ve been driving tractors as long as I remember. I got my driving licence within three months of when I was legally able to. And this love has expanded into motorbikes, when I first left the rain of the UK and experienced the joys of the Australian mountain roads. Currently I own a car (Fiesta ST) and motorbike (Yamaha Fazer)
However, soon I move back to London. I’m incredibly excited for the move - it’s been years since I lived in the city. But with it comes a complication, though - what to do about my wheels?
Owning a car in London
There are a bunch of factors involved if I want to take my car to London.
First, where I live. Only about half of the rooms in the areas I’m looking (zone 3~6) have parking available. This reduces my options and, in most cases, increases rent prices, say by £50 a month. Plus, permit parking fees apply, which looks to be ~£400 a year.
Next are the usual car ownership costs. Insurance (which is particularly expensive in London) is up to £1000. MOT, tax, and servicing, could be an extra £400 a year.
And then there’s the opportunity cost of owning a car. If I sold it and invested the money (assuming a 5% real return) I’d be up £500+. Alternatively, if I keep my car, it may depreciate - although since I bought my car prices have remained relatively stable, normally this is 10~15% a year, so £1000-£1500 loss.
In other words, my car, even if I don’t use it, costs ~£3500 a year, or ~£10 a day. This could be cheaper with pay-per-mile insurance, but still - it adds up.
And realistically, how much would I use the car? Definitely not for going into the city. Potentially for going shopping or the gym, or visiting friends and family further away. Perhaps a couple times a week?
The purpose of a car, and alternatives
This analysis got me thinking about the future of transportation. Fundamentally, a car is a tool to get a person (or people), and potentially luggage, from A to B. Apart from having my own personal car, what are the options?
One of my personal use cases for my vehicle is going to the gym. Right now, for me to drive to the gym (given everything else is paid) is under £1 (i.e. the price of petrol). A taxi is £5-£10. Given I do this daily, sometimes multiple times a day - it would quickly add up. There are no rental cars near me, but even if there were, something like Zipcar costs £9 an hour - so for a gym session lasting more than one hour it would cost more than the taxi. An e-scooter or bicycle is an option, but riding one of those at 5AM in winter is really not my idea of fun unless I get some really good, warm, waterproof clothing.
Another of my personal use cases is visiting my family, over 200 miles away. Not e-scooter or bicycle territory, and too expensive in a taxi. Ideally I’d use a train or bus, but getting from the rural train station to my rural house when there is no public transport is difficult. A train/e-scooter combo might work. Alternatively there is the car hire option - based on some very limited searching, a one-day rental is £50-£100 and a one-week rental is £300 - so, about 12 weeks (or one week per month) is equivalent to the total cost of owning my car.
So while owning a car is far from cheap, current alternatives are not necessarily much cheaper, and they’re far less convenient, especially for longer distances.
The wastage of personal car ownership
Aside from the personal cost factor, there are other negatives at the societal level.
Often a 1500-2500kg vehicle is being used to transport a single 50-100kg person. An internal combustion engine is only about 30% efficient as it is, and <5% of the weight being moved is the person. That’s horrifically inefficient - and this inefficiency plays out as pollution (both particulates as well as noise and heat). Electric vehicles improve the former percentage, but not the latter. An e-scooter only weighs 10-20kg, and can move a 120kg person - so over 85% of the weight is the person.
Another issue is traffic. These multi-tonne metal boxes are, on average, about 4.4m long by 1.8m wide, or about 8m². An e-scooter? Approximately 1m by 0.5m, so 0.5m². If everyone rode e-scooters instead of driving cars, the amount of traffic could be far less. Even a motorbike or scooter/moped is only about 2m² - which can clearly be seen by images of roads in countries such as Vietnam. And, of course, if these vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines, they’re all emitting lung-damaging chemicals and other pollutants.
A third waste is space. Most personally owned cars are used for only a few minutes a day - the majority of the time they’re parked, empty, simply taking up space. Requiring land to be used for parking increases the demand (and hence price) of land, and therefore makes any alternative uses of the land - such as housing, parks, allotments - cost more. Car sharing and taxis go some way to counteract this, as does public transport.
Note, not all countries are like this - European countries such as France and Italy tend to have far more smaller cars (both physical size/weight and engine capacity), as does Japan (the wonderful kei cars).
Regardless, for many countries, personal car ownership not only costs the individual money, but it increases traffic, increases house prices, and increases multiple types of pollution.
The future of mobility
The future of transport will look significantly different to today. There’s already an ongoing shift away from ownership to shared mobility, such as rideshares and car rentals, and recent years have also exhibited an incredible boom in micromobility (both rentals and ownership).
I believe there is an opportunity for growth in the rental market for small, weatherproof vehicles. Something for one person and a small amount of luggage. The small size reduces congestion and fuel costs, and it has the bonus of keeping you dry compared with a motorbike or micromobility alternative. Electric, obviously, but with a 200+ mile range. While writing this article I found the Mobilize Duo, which looks cool - although only an 87 mile range for now. Apparently it was supposed to come to the UK last year, but…
However, rideshares, rentals, and micromobility are primarily for in urban environments. Rural populations are too far for micromobility ranges, and often too far and sparse for rideshares and rentals to be financially viable to service.
Autonomy may be the solution. Connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) provide many benefits, from reduced traffic (algorithms allowing more efficient road usage and reduced accordianing) and increased free time (if you’re not driving you could sleep or work). For those in rural areas, they could simply order the vehicle, and it could drive to them - much like a taxi, but without the cost of the driver.
However, as much as Elon would like to claim Tesla has “full self-driving”, I think we’re some years away from a car being able to navigate rural British lanes by itself.
What will I be doing?
If I compare the costs to the benefits, the rational thing to do is to sell my car - as sad as that makes me feel to say. If I want to go somewhere within London, there are taxis or micromobility. If I go home three times a year, it’s cheaper to rent a car, or take a train.
However, I will be keeping my Fazer - free parking almost anywhere, cheaper to run, easier to nip through traffic, and still lets me collect my groceries. The main downsides are insurance is more expensive than the car because there are so many thieves, and it’s not great for cold wet British weather. But right now I don’t want to be entirely without my own personal transport. Plus, riding a motorbike is just so damn fun! I might also look into getting an e-scooter for the 1~5km distances.