Perhaps he had a jaunt across town to see a client, but returned two hours later and left a rental car outside, paid for but sitting idly, costing money.
Wouldn’t it be great, you might have thought, if you could hire a car just for a few minutes at a time? It would stop money being thrown away on stationary vehicles and generally make life much more flexible.
Such is the thinking behind Streetcar, a short-term hire company operating in London, Brighton and Southampton.
Co-founders Brett Akker and Andrew Valentine came up with the idea three years ago while on a trip to the US, where a similar scheme was already in operation.
After a year of preparation, they launched Streetcar in the UK in April 2004 with eight cars in Clapham.
In service now for two years, it operates a fleet of 190 Volkswagen Golfs available for hire for as little as half an hour, up to several months.
‘The short-term aspect is what sets us apart,’ Akker explains.
‘It’s the benefits of ownership and rental without the hassle of either. If I needed a car for a business meeting, I’d only need to pay for two or three hours.
‘The cars aren’t branded so it looks like your own car and you always know what car you’ll be picking up.’
Booking for the service is done online or over the phone and is available 24 hours a day. Users are equipped with a smart card to access the cars, and these are activated as soon as a booking is made.
The cars are parked in specially designated parking spaces across London. Users simply walk to the appropriate car, wave their smart card over a reader behind the windscreen, and the car unlocks. Once inside, a four-number PIN is typed into an onboard computer, which opens the glovebox to release the ignition key.
‘You could go online at 2am, wander down to the car and drive away by 2.02am,’ Akker says.
Streetcar asks that customers make sure that the tank is at least a quarter full when they return the car.
Each vehicle has a fuel card inside it, meaning customers can refuel without splashing out themselves. Insurance is included in the price.
Martin Venning is head of communications at the London Gateway Development Corporation, an organisation that works in planning and development across East London.
The organisation was founded a year ago and is publicly-funded, so particular care needed to be taken in organising a transport policy.
Venning explains: ‘Our employees are either planning officials or development surveys.
‘A large part of our area has relatively poor access to public transport. We need to travel regularly to familiarise ourselves with sites in the area. We need a car to be able to do that, often at relatively short notice.
‘We had to come up with a proposal that was particularly cost-effective for us with the right balance of access to vehicles when we want them but not necessarily the responsibility for all the costs and maintenance that would go with having our own fleet.’
Naturally a fleet of its own, and normal hiring and leasing routes were all considered, but a quirk of fate led him to consider another option.
Venning says: ‘We looked at all the options from buying or leasing vehicles and hiring in other ways.
‘Streetcar came out top. We found out about it because one of the first depots they established was very close to our offices. We saw some local promotional material and followed up on it.
‘We decided to start with the Streetcar proposal and see how well it worked for us.’
Venning joined as a private citizen to evaluate the service, but was so impressed that he soon signed up the whole organisation to a corporate membership.
‘It’s quite a saving in administration. Having the onboard computer legally takes care of our paperwork.
‘You just need to be able to get to a place where the cars are parked.
‘It’s very convenient, flexible and quick. We have a relatively small team here and the only way we can operate is with maximum flexibility. We don’t have to worry about insurance, maintenance and so on, the same as a regular hire vehicle.
‘It also avoids the need for staff to bring cars of their own into London.’
Corporate customers pay for their rental upon receipt of a monthly credit card-style bill. But fleet managers can also check on who is hiring what and when, and what their projected bill will be, by logging into their own online account.
Venning says: ‘You can use the car pretty much as you like. For our sort of use the beauty is that you can hire more or less by the hour, and because we have a confined geographical area that we work in it’s relatively easy for us to predict how long we’ll need it for.
‘It’s ideal for London. You don’t have to worry about the congestion charge either, because Streetcar pays it and then charges you through your bill – you don’t have the hassle of making sure you have paid for it.’
Despite all the positives he has found to the concept of car clubs, Venning does have a reservation about the future.
He says: ‘I’m sure this scheme is going to get very popular and increase in the future.
It’s going to be dependent on Streetcar making sure they have sufficient vehicles to cope with demand.
‘But so far we have been very pleased with the way the service works – it has certainly lived up to its billing.’
Hiring a Streetcar costs £4.95 per hour, £35 for 24 hours Monday to Friday and £150 for a five day working week. At the moment the service is only available in London, Southampton and Brighton, but there are plans to expand to other cities including Bristol and Oxford.