Do you really need your own private vehicle? Five lessons from a year using a car-sharing app | Shelley Hepworth

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Before moving overseas six years ago, I sold my car and have been living without one ever since. Life in New York for the first two years was a breeze, but being car-free in Sydney? Not so much.

Private cars have always been integral to getting from A to B in Australia. While I caught the bus to school, afternoon and weekend activities usually required a lift from my parents or those of a friend. I got my own licence as soon as I was eligible and a few years later bought my first car, which I used most days.

The past four years have felt like a struggle against the inertia of an environment built for cars – especially now that I’m carless in a beachside suburb with no train station and only a couple of bus services.

I have lucked upon a single bus that takes me door-to-office in about 30 minutes, making travelling to work via public transport a simple choice. But travelling 5km across a couple of suburbs to visit a bar or restaurant isn’t as easy. In one example it requires a minimum of two buses and a 40-minute journey, or 53 minutes on foot, according to Google maps. Driving would take just 13 minutes.

Before giving in and buying a car, I decided to spend 12 months using the car-sharing app GoGet, taking stock of the costs and experience in an effort to avoid the significant outlay and carbon emissions a personal car entails. In that time I learned that car-sharing is both liberating and a big hassle.

Lesson 1: it wasn’t cheaper (for me) to share

GoGet offers a network of 3,400 vehicles spread across five Australian cities that you can rent through an app for an hourly rate, and access via a smart card. There are starter, occasional or frequent plans, depending on your usage. I paid $30 a month for a minimum hire rate of $6.70 per hour, plus $0.40 per kilometre, which included petrol and insurance.

The app shows you a map of nearby vehicles that you can book in advance, and cancel right up until the last minute. With several cars located within 500m of my apartment, including an SUV with a baby seat, I only once had an issue finding a conveniently located free car.

Over the course of 12 months I took 80 trips, travelled 1,690km and spent $2,246.15 on GoGet – an average of $187 a month.

I used a friend’s car to calculate the rough equivalent cost of a private car, which came in slightly higher at $2,406 ($477 for mandatory “green slip” liability insurance, $381 for registration, $1,248 for optional comprehensive car insurance and $300 on petrol).

‘I decided to spend 12 months using the car-sharing app GoGet, taking stock of the costs and experience.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

At face value, these costs are similar, but there are some qualifications. For the first six months of the year, I had a friend living around the corner whose car I borrowed at least once a week for small trips. I also sometimes found it was cheaper to pay for an Uber than to pay for time the GoGet car would spend parked near the venue (you can extend the booking in 30-minute intervals).

And, crucially, this experiment took place during the pandemic, with at least a quarter of that time spent in lockdown. In normal times, which I hope are coming, I would expect to drive more often, and further afield – particularly to see my parents who live 27km away (50 minutes by car, more than twice that via public transport, or $60 via GoGet for a three-hour visit).

Lesson 2: it made me more environmentally aware

Using a car-sharing service made me more aware of both my spending on transport and my environmental footprint. Every time I went to book, I would ask: “Do you really need a car for this? Do you really need to make this trip?” – something I never did when I had my own car. Usually the answer was yes, but that didn’t assuage the nagging sense of guilt I felt knowing I was contributing to CO2 in the atmosphere and spending money I could ostensibly be saving.

‘For the first six months of the year, I had a friend living around the corner whose car I borrowed at least once a week for small trips.’
‘For the first six months of the year, I had a friend living around the corner whose car I borrowed at least once a week for small trips.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

I suspect the guilt I felt booking cars was more financial than environmental, but I did become more aware of my carbon footprint in the process, and it has become more of a factor in my decision on whether to buy again.

Lesson 3: parking is (a bit) easier

Since I’m near the coast, parking in my area tends to become tricky on sunny days.

Jennifer Kent, a senior research fellow in urbanism at the University of Sydney, says lack of access to parking is “a huge motivator” for car sharing. “People are moving into inner city areas where parking is extremely constrained and they’ve simply got nowhere to put a car. But you’ve got to put that in the context that to be able to [give up having their own car] they need to have access to good public transport, good walking and good cycling for all the other trips that make up their lives.

‘Private cars have always been integral to getting from A to B in Australia.’
‘Private cars have always been integral to getting from A to B in Australia.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“Car-sharing is not for regular journeys, it’s too expensive, so car-sharing only works as part of that network. And that’s half the problem we’re facing with getting car-sharing to work out in the suburbs.”

In my case, GoGet only somewhat alleviated this problem, with its own reserved parking, since I would often find a Porsche or similar luxury car taking up the spot on my return anyway.

Lesson 4: Australians aren’t used to sharing

Kent says Australian cities “kind of grew up at the time of the private car”.

“We just assumed that everybody would have access to a car, so that’s how we planned our suburbs. They’re really low density, they’re really difficult to retrofit with public transport, the distances that people travel are fairly long, so very difficult to satisfy with walking and cycling – and it’s very hard to change that around once it’s been established.”

As a result, Australians are used to the independence a private car provides: the ability to go where we want, whenever we want, to carry a load, the feeling of safety a car provides – and also the sense of privacy. And we’re unwilling to give this up.

‘GoGet offers a network of 3,400 vehicles spread across five Australian cities that you can rent through an app for an hourly rate, and access via a smart card.’
‘GoGet offers a network of 3,400 vehicles spread across five Australian cities that you can rent through an app for an hourly rate, and access via a smart card.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“Australians are not typically all that great at sharing stuff,” Kent says. “If you think about the great Aussie dream, it’s all about private spaces, private backyards … and that extends to cars … A lot of people actually see [their] car as an extension of their living room. You hear stories about people storing heaps of stuff in their car, a change of clothes etc. We can’t make that jump towards sharing because it’s not only that we’re sharing the mobility of the car, we’re also giving up that sense of space.”

At times during the past year, for a week here and there, I had access to the cars of friends or family who were travelling, and I definitely noticed the extra convenience of knowing the car was there whenever I needed it. That convenience isn’t a deciding factor in whether to buy a car, but it’s certainly a nice-to-have at times. On the other hand, I also enjoy the feeling of being part of a sharing culture, it feels more communal and is something I miss about the New York subway, for instance.

Lesson 5: we can’t go on like this

One of the main outcomes of this experiment has been to make me more aware that my decisions are primarily based on self-interest. I’m not alone.

“We’re more of an individualistic society than societies in Europe, for example, where car-sharing is a bit more popular,” Kent says. “We have this understanding that in society there is inequality, and we’re OK with that inequality existing. Whereas other countries where sharing might be more popular see more of a defence of a more equal society, and more equal access, which is better suited to things like public transport, and car sharing.”

‘The practical need to keep travel time and costs down is tipping the scales in favour of ownership.’
‘The practical need to keep travel time and costs down is tipping the scales in favour of ownership.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Kent says Australia’s attachment to private cars is a vicious circle. In order to give up our cars, we need to know that the public transport infrastructure exists for us to get where we need to go in a timely manner. But for public transport to improve, there needs to be a strong constituency voting for it in the first place.

Without that, she says, a stick might help.

“I think we actually need for things to get a little bit dire. So looking at the snapback, post-Covid, for example, all the modelling suggests that traffic is going to increase … because people are not wanting to use public transport. And the only thing that’s going to stop that from happening is increased congestion – people just getting sick of being stuck in traffic and shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘OK, I’ll get back on the bus’.

“We’re a bit like surly teenagers, you know? Like, if you make me I’ll do it, but I’ll do it begrudgingly.”

I still haven’t decided whether to buy a car, but I’m leaning in that direction. While this experience has made me reflect on the role of private cars in our society and think deeply about what kind of city I want to live in, I suspect the practical need to keep travel time and costs down will tip the scales in favour of ownership in the long run.

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