Smart Consumer: How car-sharing can help drive down the cost of getting around
The costs and hassles of owning a car or two certainly add up. As well as the expense of buying them in the first place, you have to regularly stump up for fuel, insurance, motor tax, servicing and repairs, NCTs, cleaning, and parking fees.
Cork city resident Laura Pomeroy doesn't own a car but uses one at least once a week, typically during the evenings or weekends. It's usually to be found parked in a spot on Wandesford Quay, just five minutes away from her apartment.
"I don't need a car in my everyday life as I live within walking distance of work, and the parking facilities are limited in the area," says Laura.
Laura is a member of a car-sharing club called GoCar. Established in Cork city in 2008, registered users can hire a car or van at relatively short notice (at least an hour or so) and use it for as little as one hour or longer for around €5 an hour.
It sounds much like a traditional car hire service, but there are a couple of key differences.
The first is that hiring a GoCar is done on a 'pay as you go' basis, so you only pay for the amount of time you need it and the distance you travel.
Traditional car-hire firms charge by the day, so even if you hire a car and drop it back within two hours, you are still charged the full daily rate, and you have to pay for your own fuel too.
The second difference is to do with speed and convenience.
Once you've booked online, all you have to do is walk to the designated parking spot in the city centre (where the car is based when it's not in use), hold your membership card up to a card reader on the windscreen to unlock the car, get in, and away you go.
In many ways, GoCar is like a four-wheeled version of the Dublin Bikes scheme. More than one million journeys have been taken on Dublin Bikes since they launched last year.
Now, following a three-year pilot operation in Cork city, GoCar has just established its first base in Dublin. Two cars will be located on Pleasants Street, off Camden Street, and it hopes to expand with further bases with more cars -- and possibly vans -- later in the year.
While there are similarities with Dublin Bikes in that the cars are parked in convenient locations on public streets and available at short notice, GoCar is being billed as an alternative to owning a car, or even a second car, for those who live in city centres.
"One of the major advantages is that you don't have to maintain the car or find parking in the city," says Laura. "There is always a parking space available.
"It is also eco-friendly as I am not leaving an empty car parked in the city without being used."
The GoCar fleet in Cork includes a van as well as cars.
"Car owners only have what they have, and try to anticipate that they can use their car for everything," says GoCar managing director Graham Lightfoot.
GoCar Cork was set up as a three-year pilot project by Mendes, a Tipperary-based transport consultancy, with the help of Cork City Council and Ford, which provided the eight-strong fleet.
The support of the Council was clearly crucial in terms of permanently allocating the street parking spaces, but equally there is strong support at government level to assist with services like GoCar. It ticks a number of boxes, including reducing car usage and helping the environment.
However, over the course of two years, the take-up in Cork appears to have been a little underwhelming.
So far, the company has a total of nearly 140 authorised users.
About a third of these are employees of Cork City Council, which agreed to block-book three cars for its staff over the three-year period of the pilot.
There are more than 40 private users, with the rest made up of business users from small firms.
"Progress has been quite slow with new customers joining at an average of five per month and use levels also being very low," says GoCar managing director Graham Lightfoot. "However, we have proved that the technology works and our customers seem to be very happy with the service."
He openly acknowledges the strong culture of car ownership that makes the idea of getting rid of even a second pair of wheels a bridge too far for most people.
"As well as that, the low density development of towns and cities in Ireland militates against our type of service, which needs high-density developments to support it."
GoCar Dublin is expected to be more successful given its far greater size and higher density compared to Cork.
Joss Fitzsimons regularly uses the GoCar Cork van from either Wandesford Quay or the City Hall mainly for transporting items being used by Jospa, the ocean-wave research company she works for.
She also owns a small sports car "presently in need of an NCT" but has actively considered getting rid of it, "or perhaps I might just tax and insure it for the summer months".
Joss says most of the teething troubles affecting the service seem to have been ironed out, but some problems remain. "There is a regular problem of people parking illegally on the spot, which means it's difficult to get back in," she says, but rates this only as a minor issue.
So far, neither Joss nor Laura has had any problems with availability, but this is something GoCar say they are always conscious of.
"As the level of refusals increases we will look to provide more vehicles, but at the moment it's not an issue," says Lightfoot.