Boris Johnson bringing electric cars to London

London is keeping a close eye on Paris and its successful Autolib’ electric car-sharing scheme. Starting next year, the city will try to catch up to its French counterpart by complement its public bicycle-sharing scheme with electric cars for hire. As Meike Stolp reports from London, the project will start small but there are big plans ahead.


“Boris Bikes”, fondly named by the Brits after London’s mayor Boris Johnson, can be found all over London: Around 10,000 eco-friendly public bikes are available for hire in the city. Now their successor is on its way. As of March 2015, the capital will roll out the first 100 “Boris cars” for short trips in the city. And if Londoners embrace the idea like its organisers expect, a total of 3,000 “Boris cars” will be found zooming around Britain’s capital by 2018.

The car-sharing scheme will be operated by French car tycoon Vincent Bolloré, whose company runs a similar scheme in Paris. Autolib’ has 2,000 electric cars for hire in the French capital and is so successful that other French cities have followed the Autolib’ model. Even the American city of Indianapolis launched its own electric car-sharing scheme earlier this year.

From Boris Bikes to Boris Cars

It’s an apt name because the popularly dubbed Boris cars are very similar to their predecessor, the Boris Bikes, insofar as both are eco-friendly and relatively cheap. But Boris Johnson isn’t just smiling because of the name. London’s mayor believes the electric cars will improve London’s horrible air pollution problem. As Leon Daniels from Transport for London explains, the city risks a EU fine of up to 250 million pounds because of its poor air quality. Electric cars could therefore be the much-needed answer to a serious problem faced by the city’s 8.4 million inhabitants.

Electric cars are even better when used as part of a car-sharing scheme as they “drastically reduce the number of cars on our streets and also lower emissions,” said Daniels. Experts estimated that a publically “shared” car can replace four to eight private vehicles.

Car sharing made easy

The principle behind the electric car-sharing scheme is really quite simple: Interested members need to register with a driver’s license, photo identification, and credit card. Once done, they receive a membership card and can immediately begin reserving vehicles. To do so, they simply go to one of many charging stations scattered through the city, swipe their card on the station’s scanner and presto, a car is released. The card is also used to unlock the driver’s door.

The cost of renting an electric car is determined by the number of minutes the car is used and whether the member has a daily, weekly, monthly or annual subscription. A member with a daily subscription only pays around 9 euro for using the car for 30 minutes, making it far cheaper than owning their own car in a large city. And it’s definitely cheaper than renting a car for an entire day when you only have to drive short distances.

A 2013 survey by market researchers CSA found that 70 per cent of Autolib’ subscribers felt that the service made it possible for them not to buy a car of their own, while 75 per cent of car owners with an Autolib’ membership found that it helped them use their car less often.

Good start in Paris

On the streets of Paris, the electric cars have turned out to be a hit – even though critics initially predicted that the company would fail. The number of members grew in the first year from about 8,000 to 47,000. And it’s risen to 155,000 since then. The system was the initiative of the former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. And like London, it was launched as a complement to the city’s cycle-sharing scheme called Vélib’. Autolib’ was launched less than three years ago in December 2011 with a mere 250 Bluecars.

But despite its good start, criticism has started to mount in France. Rental stations in Paris are often out of cars, and the vehicles themselves are sometimes broken or in poor condition, writes Le Monde. Some members claim that cars smell like smoke, even though smoking is strictly prohibited in the vehicles. Signs, perhaps, that the honour system can only go so far.


Photo credit: Ade Russel/flickr

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