Dutch community car service Greenwheels
If you hold a driver's licence but don't want the hassle or expense of owning a car, what better way to get out of the Dutch drizzle than to join a community car club. Natasha Gunn reports.
Missing the freedom of owning a car, Irish expat Rebecca Taylor, an Industrial designer (28) based in Amsterdam, noticed that one of her Dutch neighbours was using a Greenwheels car. She checked out the Greenwheels website and decided to join.
"I found the initial outlay wasn't too much, and decided it was worth taking the risk," says Rebecca, who wasn't fazed by the all-Dutch language instructions. "I understood a third of it and went for it anyhow," she says.
To begin, the customer must fill in an online application form and – once their driving license is verified, they receive a chip card and a pin code through the post.
Rebecca finds the system easy to use. "You put the card into the dash - enter a pin number for extra security and then the glove compartment opens and you take out the key."
The price is reasonable, too. "You have to pay a deposit, about EUR 225. I had an NS Voordeelurenkaart (rail travel reduction card), which gave me a discount," says Rebecca. "The company's made lucrative deals with the train systems and local councils based on their green philosophy. In the end I was just paying EUR 12.50 a month as a subscription fee for myself and my boyfriend."
Car users are charged per hour – the price varies between on and off-peak times, and for petrol, per kilometre. Users are expected to fill up the car when the tank is less than a quarter full. The amount is charged directly to the Greenwheels account via the Greenwheels card.
Rebecca feels that that the average EUR 20 she spends to use the cars every now and then is affordable. She is also sold on the convenience of the system. Her nearest pick-up point is at the end of her street, plus the cars are parked close by railway stations.
There are penalties to pay, however, if you don't drop the vehicle back to its official parking spot, or if you're late dropping it off. You could, for instance, find yourself footing the taxi bill for the next user to pick up the car from the 'wrong' location.
"Once I tried to park it in its 'spot' and couldn't due to the spot being illegally occupied by another car," says Rebecca. "I avoided a penalty through phoning Greenwheels – it's all organised through the 24-hour call centre and website - and telling them where I’d parked it."
Users also need to be aware of popular times when the cars are in high demand. For instance, on Sundays the cars completely book out according to Rebecca.
"We thought we'd booked it one Sunday – I hadn't waited for the confirmation on the website – and found a Dutch couple earnestly looking round the car for signs of damage. Another of the rules is that you have to phone in any damage you find so you're not made liable for it. To be honest with you, I don't check for every scratch," she says.
British expat Nick Paterson (28), who lives with his Dutch girlfriend in Haarlem is also happy with the system, which he describes as logical, practical and transparent.
Nick commutes daily to his work as a property fund manager in Amsterdam, a trip which takes him 25 minutes door-to-door using the Greenwheels service in tandem with the train. With the company car, which he ditched in favour of the Greenwheels service, the same trip took him between 45 minutes and an hour and a half.
"The company car was also too expensive to run, and I'm into environmentally friendly schemes," he says.
Nick also uses Greenwheels to reduce the time he spends driving in the Netherlands on what he considers are becoming increasingly busy roads.
"I've driven in the UK, Germany and Belgium and if I leave a normal space between two cars in these countries it's OK. If I leave the same space while driving in Holland, two cars will aggressively try to move in. Maybe the Dutch, who don't have much space in general, try to get more space when they see it."
The people who favour car sharing over ownership, in Nick's view, see the car as "a way of getting from A to B rather than a fashion accessory." Nick believes the car has become a victim of its own success and that services such as Greenwheels will continue to grow in popularity.
Jan Borghuis, one of the cofounders of Greenwheels says that the majority of Greenwheels' Dutch users have university degrees and an above-average income. They live in the bigger cities and they come from one or two-person households.
"The fact that they earn more seems like a paradox but it isn't – people with a lower income tend to have a lower level of education – to be blue collar workers – and this group of people tend to value the status a car brand gives you," he says.
Borghuis adds that "a more than average number of expatriates use the service." They are usually based in their home country and come to the Netherlands for a few months at a time and "don't want the hassle of owning a car in the Netherlands."
So why hasn't the website and car manual been translated into several languages to suit the growing number of expats using the service?
"Some parts of our service – such as the display on the onboard computers - can only give information in one language, so we decided to keep everything in Dutch," says Borghuis.
The 'easyjet' of European car clubs
The notion of car sharing has existed since the car was invented around a century ago.
"People have always shared them with friends, family, neighbours," says Borghuis.
The car club business really started taking off in Europe in 1988, pioneered by Switzerland and Germany. America and Asia caught on several years later.
"Over the last 20 years new technologies such as chip cards, mobile telephones, onboard computers with mobile communications systems, databases, and web reservation systems have made it relatively easy to share thousands of cars with thousands of people," he says.
Greenwheels, which Borghuis - along with business partner Gijs van Lookeren Campagne, started in 1994, is the first car club to operate in the Netherlands. Because of its original, highly standardised and online-dependent system, Borghuis suggests it is the 'easyjet' of European car clubs.
The club currently operates in 65 cities in Germany and the Netherlands, and within these cities there are about 1000 locations where one or more cars are available.
Greenwheels website: www.greenwheels.nl
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