BusinessCar's London commute
24 April 2018
BusinessCar's editorial team compete in a race to discover which form of mobility is the best solution to commute into central London.
In the coming years, big cities such as London face challenges including population growth, congestion and environmental issues.
Most of us know that using public transport is better for the environment, can help reduce grey fleet use, and can often be a cheaper and quicker route, especially to an inner-city destination. But in reality, the number of cars on our roads is continuing to rise. In fact, recent transport statistics show that UK roads are the tenth most congested in the world.
We're constantly hearing that car clubs provide a cost-effective and flexible alternative to owning a car, and can help tackle these congestion challenges. But are they the answer to today's mobility concerns, and are they really more convenient, cheaper and better overall than driving an owned car into the city or getting the train?
The perfect opportunity to put these different mobility options to the test was a meeting in Fleet Street. The aim was to start at our office in Foots Cray, Kent, at 8am on a Wednesday, and see who could reach the meeting quickest and most cheaply.
On the right track
Having scrutinised the Transport for London website to work out the quickest way to get to our central London destination via public transport, I decided catching a train from St Mary Cray station was a better bet than getting one from Sidcup.
This was despite the fact that the former lies in Zone 6 on the capital's Travelcard map, whereas the latter is in Zone 5.
I based my decision on the fact that Fleet Street is a short walk from Blackfriars station, which is on the Thameslink line from St Mary Cray, while Sidcup serves the central London hubs of Waterloo, Cannon Street and London Bridge, from where catching a further tube train or a bus would be required.
I also calculated that getting to St Mary Cray in the first place would be quicker.
So with my mind made up, I hotfooted it around the corner from the office to the bus stop in Cray Road.
According to the timetable, the 51 comes every eight minutes, but I didn't have to wait that long and at 8.08am I was on board, having used my debit card to make a contactless payment for the £1.50 fare - London buses no longer accept cash payments.
It being the school holiday, the bus was quiet and so were the roads, and we made good progress. Unfortunately my assumption that the route called at St Mary Cray station itself was incorrect and by the time I realised this oversight we had passed by the nearest stop and
With an outside chance of catching an earlier train gone, I crossed the road and caught an R11 bus back in the direction I'd come at 8.26am. I tapped my debit card again but, it being within 30 minutes of the original journey, there was no further charge.
Ten minutes later. I alighted at St Mary Cray station, giving me plenty of time to pay the £6.40 fare with another contactless card swipe and board the 8.46am service to Bedford, which stopped at eight stations on its way to Blackfriars, where I arrived on time at 9.25am.
With one last card swipe to activate the exit barriers (it is worth noting that if you don't swipe out you'll incur a penalty charge) I walked to Fleet Street, arriving at 9.30am, giving me time to enjoy a relaxed coffee and croissant before the 10am meeting began.
For the car, this was a test where defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, as the expected issue of traffic jams was overcome, only for another scourge of city driving - parking - to spoil the show.
As a large SUV, the BusinessCar long-term Renault Koleos I drove may not seem like the obvious choice for a city car. However, it does have the advantage of sat-nav with TomTom Live services. The car's route from Foots Cray to Fleet Street broadly followed the A20 for much of the way; however, on three separate occasions, the system steered me off onto alternative routes around hold-ups.
This made the route more scenic than it might otherwise have been - at one point taking roads through Greenwich Park - but also meant that, although the roads were generally busy, there weren't any serious hold-ups until Blackfriars, just a couple of miles from the destination. Although this may have been partly down to a lack of school-run traffic during the Easter break, it's also an indication of how modern sat-nav systems can make driving at rush-hour a less frustrating proposition than it would have been a few years ago.
Unfortunately, it was once I'd reached our destination that the issue of parking reared its head. Expecting this to be a problem, I'd reserved a space in a car park the previous day, but arrived to find it totally full regardless. I therefore used the sat-nav to find the nearest alternative parking location, but then had to endure a ten-minute crawl through congestion, only to find that it was an on-street facility with all the spaces taken. Returning to the sat-nav and scrolling down the list until I saw the words 'car park', I then managed to find a parking space ten minutes walk from our destination. But overall, there was an extra half an hour added to the journey, which meant finishing well behind public transport and only just ahead of the
At least it wasn't too costly. Fuel economy of 43.6mpg, according to the car's trip computer, was pretty reasonable for a city commute and a £3 car park charge didn't seem unreasonable for central London - much cheaper, as it turned out, than the space I'd failed to reserve.
Car club troubles
Joining a car club provides the convenience of owning a car without the hassle or costs of repairs, servicing or parking. So I opted to try the London commute from our starting point at the Foots Cray office using the 'mobility as a service' route. However, there was a problem. Foots Cray is not very well connected, to say the least, and when scouting the area for car club cars, it became apparent that it was either an hour's walk to New Eltham, the nearest Enterprise car, or taking a bus. The latter it was, then, if I had any chance of coming close in the commuter race.
After a £1.50 bus ride in which the driver took the scenic route around the residential areas of Sidcup, I arrived at the Enterprise car club car at 8:30am. I was able to conveniently open the Fiesta with my app when I was standing near it, and was then instructed to open the glove box and enter my pin into a machine which would release my key and fuel card. However, the fuel card was missing. The fuel gauge showed the car had less than quarter of a tank, but with no time to lose, I decided the range anxiety was worth it.
I began my car-club journey and hit a bit of traffic around Tower Bridge in the congestion zone, which added £11.50 to my journey, a cost that isn't covered by Enterprise unless you pick up the car from within central London. I reached the closest Enterprise parking spot to Fleet Street and parked at 9:38am - not a bad commute, once I eventually reached the car. I quickly locked it with my app and made my way to the meeting point, only to find that Sean and James were sat smugly, coffee in hand when I arrived.
According to the app, the total journey, which only took a little over an hour, cost me in total more than £35, not including the bus and the congestion charge, or my £7-a-month Enterprise car club membership. It wasn't helped by the fact that I overshot the time that I'd return the car by a few hours, just to be sure and so I wouldn't have to rush back, but was unfortunately charged £9.04 for an early cancellation. Another problem was that I was not able to leave the car in central London, and had to return it to New Eltham, where I collected it. While this isn't always going to present a problem, it's not as convenient as a one-way service, which would make sense for a commute into central London to avoid hourly rental costs.
It's fair to say that my first experience using a car club was not as successful as I'd hoped. If there happened to be a car parked just outside the office, things could have turned out differently, but the convenience of a car club unfortunately just didn't translate to this particular journey. What could be said for car clubs is that they're great for one-off journeys out of the city on the weekend, for example, but a commute into the city is not their strong point.
It's worth reiterating that, despite the results we reached, it's true that joining a car club provides the convenience of owning a car without the hassle or costs of repairs, servicing or parking.
In this instance, however, the car club wasn't the success we expected it to be, nor was driving our own car into the city, which took longer than the train and cost more, too, when considering the congestion charge incurred. Vehicle SMR would also play a big part for fleet drivers here too.
For our test, London public transport prevailed and while that result could have been predicted, with car clubs providing so many benefits for inner-city travel, we hoped the result would work out differently. With rising congestion causing continued problems in our cities, it is likely that car clubs will continue to be a popular option, but it is exceptional journeys like these where they still need to expand to fulfil the promise of their benefits. Of course, that means drivers giving up car ownership too.