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10 September 2018 | By Pip Brooking Interview

Jonathan Hampson, Zipcar

How Zipcar is growing through a renewed focus on the customer – and taking a punt on an electric future

When much of London resembles a car park, and just a month into 2018, the capital’s air pollution reached the legal limit for the entire year, it can be easy to see the four-wheeled vehicle as a villain of the piece. But policy makers’ vision for the future of transport can’t exclude cars just because they’re scared to talk about them, says Jonathan Hampson, General Manager at car sharing firm Zipcar UK.

Zipcar already has a fleet of 2,500 vehicles in London, as well as 215,000 members. That membership figure is up 25 per cent in the past 12 months, driven by the company’s efforts to “stay relevant and compelling”. But it wants to find five times as many converts to meet its vision for a city where car sharers outnumber car owners.

“Given the challenge of the emissions in our cities, we’ve got to tackle private car ownership and we’ve got to convince people that actually having that car for 95 per cent of the time doing absolutely nothing has real impact on the city that everyone wants to live in,” says Hampson. “I really hope that we can get towards a million car sharers in London by 2025. And in turn, we can help the city cope with a number of the problems it's having.”

He’s clear that car sharing will only ever be part of the solution, but he’s frustrated that too many policy makers focus just on walking, cycling and public transport. “Go and talk to real Londoners and many of them will continue to have car needs. Telling them that they shouldn’t is not realistic.”

So he calls for bolder thinking – and while autonomous vehicles may hold an answer in 20 years’ time, he insists “people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we can create some real behavioural change now”.

“It’s got to be about giving Londoners choices, so they feel that they can be comfortable not having their own car.”

Attracting a broader audience

Offering new services designed to reflect the needs of a broader base of consumers has spurred Zipcar’s growth over the past 18 months.

The renewed momentum comes after a period of “too much internal focus”, says Hampson. Zipcar UK was formed on the purchase of Streetcar in 2011 and as the company started to mature as a business, it concentrated on creating efficiencies in order to break through into profitability.

“All of that is good and absolutely vital if you’re growing a business, but it does sometimes mean you lose track of what’s really important – and that’s that you’re serving a customer as best as you possibly can.”

The launch of Zipcar Flex last summer put the company back on track. Instead of having to book a car for a round-trip, users can now be more spontaneous, jumping into an available car for short one-way trips around town and paying for it by the minute or hour.

And despite initially targeting individual drivers, a third of Zipcar members are now business customers – and with additional focus, Hampson expects that to number to grow quickly too.

“It’s a great solution for SMEs who don’t want the burden of having to own their own fleet or vehicle. For some, we’re the sole supplier of vehicles, others might tap into us at busy times of the year, as an overflow capacity. There are lots of ways in which we can work both with cars and vans for businesses.”

Electric vision

But as a good example of what can be achieved when there is a shared vision about the future, local authorities have challenged Zipcar to push itself harder and take the plunge into electric vehicles.

“Everyone understands why there are challenges about going electric when people use our cars to get out of town and do long trips. But it’s a different matter if you’re talking about a trip that’s 40 minutes,” explains Hampson.

So when Zipcar launched Flex, its stakeholders – the boroughs which provide the car parking spaces and the Greater London Authority – were clear they wanted the service to be electric.

We want to work hand in hand with what London wants to achieve

“We’re very keen to be seen as a collaborative partner for the city. We want to work hand in hand with what London wants to achieve. So we went out to car manufacturers and said that we’d like to get out there before it becomes mandated. We wanted to be proactive.”

This summer Zipcar rolled out its first 100 electric cars, in partnership with Volkswagen. All being well, 325 will be on the road by the end of the year. And if others “come to the table” to speed up the availability of the necessary charging infrastructure, Hampson’s ambition is for his entire fleet to be electric in seven years’ time.

Without that infrastructure, the biggest challenge is making the service commercially viable.

“Our members absolutely wanted electric vehicles, they just weren’t willing to pay any more for them,” Hampson explains. “We are taking care of the whole recharging experience ourselves so members don’t have to worry about that. That can only happen because of Volkswagen’s support. 

“If there’s a long-term future in electric, we really need a lot more infrastructure around London so we can ask members to charge the car in the same way that we ask them to refuel our round-trip cars.

“We’re taking a bet that by us getting in there early, the market will follow and there will be innovation in charging infrastructure in particular.” 

Working together

Zipcar is not new to getting in to markets early. The company has been around for nearly 15 years and has done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of educating people about the concept of car sharing – as well as building trust in the service.

“Word of mouth has been tremendously powerful and it’s one of those things you can’t directly control. You can just offer a good service that people want to talk about with their friends.”

With 3,000 members making 9,000 trips in the electric Golfs in their first six weeks, feedback has been very strong. But this time it’ll take more than talking to make it a long-term success. For Hampson, it comes back to having a strong vision for the a zero-emissions future – and everyone working together to make it happen.

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