Who needs to buy a car when you can hire one?

Car-sharing has seen mixed success. The Sunday Times talks to users who value the flexibility of pay-as-you-drive and the money they can save by not owning a car

As Singaporeans warm to the idea of not owning a car, car-sharing companies look set to ramp up their fleet. Still, there is lingering scepticism that the car-sharing concept would be embraced as part of the wheel-loving Singapore lifestyle.

Car-sharing is a pay-as-you-drive transportation service. It differs from conventional car rental as it offers greater flexibility to access and use. The hirer also pays only for the time and mileage incurred.

For instance, car rental companies typically do not allow their cars to be used for very short durations such as an hour, but car-sharing services generally do.

Said to have started in Europe in the 1970s, the concept first surfaced in Singapore in 1997, when a pilot car-sharing scheme with four cars was launched by NTUC Income Car Cooperative.

Since then, the car-sharing scene has seen mixed fortunes. A few car-sharing services have come and gone, while some services have been absorbed by others.

For example, Honda Diracc was a car-sharing service formed by the Japanese manufacturer in 2002 using a fleet of petrol-electric Civic Hybrids. But Honda gave up the business in 2008.

CitySpeed Car Sharing, part of the rental car division of land transport giant ComfortDelGro, also closed shop in 2007, reasoning that new cars were becoming more affordable. There are now three main car-sharing operators here with their own fleets: Car Club, WhizzCar and Smove.

Car Club - which started in 2009 and used to be NTUC Income's Car Co-op business - has about 230 cars now and plans to increase its fleet to 300 by April next year.

WhizzCar, started in 2003, now has about 130 cars, and wants to increase this to 150 by the end of the year.

Smove, which was launched in 2012, has 230 cars and lets customers use them to run trips for Uber, a ride-sharing service.

A nation-wide electric vehicle car-sharing programme called BlueSG will also be launched in the middle of next year, starting with 125 cars.

These companies say they see much promise in the future of car-sharing here.

Mr Ho Kok Kee, 54, WhizzCar's managing director, says: "We have seen interest grow progressively, and we expect the demand for car-sharing to increase as we make it more accessible."

Mr Gary Ong, 38, managing director of Car Club, says: "From experience and the research worldwide, the demand for car-sharing will continue to increase.

"More people are finding that it may not be sensible to own a car when various alternatives are becoming more efficient."

While Professor Lee Der Horng, 48, a transport researcher from the National University of Singapore, feels there is space for the car-sharing industry to grow in the next five years, he is not optimistic that the concept may be much more enticing beyond that.

"I don't think car-sharing will be a game-changer in the local transportation landscape,'' he says.

"As public transport becomes more accessible and convenient, people will generally give up car ownership and take public transport because of the obvious cost savings.

"In my opinion, engaging a car-sharing service is still more expensive than travelling via public transport.

"Car-sharing comes in only when non-car owners need to get to places not well-served by public transport networks."

Citing Marine Parade, he says: "If I want to get there now, I might probably use a car-sharing service if I did not own a car.

"But when the Thomson-East Coast Line - expected to open in stages from 2019 to 2024 - is operational, would I need a car to get there quickly? I doubt so."

While Mr Lai Meng, 57, president of the Car-sharing Association of Singapore, remains optimistic, he acknowledges that there are many infrastructure obstacles to the service's growth here.

For example, he says, if a car-sharing operator wishes to set up a station at an HDB carpark, it needs to apply to the local grassroots organisation for approval. "This can take six to 18 months."

Many grassroots leaders also give car-owning residents priority over car-sharing residents, he adds.

"Parking spots in popular carparks near town centres or MRT stations, in particular, are almost impossible to obtain. The carpark demands from car owners there are overwhelming."

These obstacles, however, are not insurmountable, he adds.

"Since the time car-sharing came to Singapore, the experts have said it won't work. But we have managed to be commercially sustainable for so long. Looking ahead, if we can overcome the infrastructure challenges here, I am confident car-sharing can really take off here."

Find out how to use a car from a car-sharing service. Go to http://str.sg/4N28

Cheaper than calling for cabs

Property agent Ng Leng Leng likes that she can collect the cars from stations located throughout the island. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Property agent Ng Leng Leng is a loyal user of car-sharing services.

The 51-year-old managing director of real estate agency Starts Singapore has been using Car Club's service for the last five years.

Nine of her company's 12 employees - mostly property agents - are also active members of Car Club. They use it almost every day to meet clients and conduct viewings.

Although some employees own their cars, the company encourages them to use the service during work and pays for their membership and usage costs.

She says: "Using the service is definitely cheaper than calling a cab and paying the extra peak hour surcharge.

"We use the service for four to five hours each time. Sometimes, five employees can use the service at the same time, using five different cars."

On average, her employees can use three cars a day.

She adds: "If we were to rent a car for a whole month, it would cost us $1,500, excluding petrol, insurance and parking.

"By car-sharing, we can allow nine people to use cars and it costs us about $3,000 a month. Through car-sharing, we save at least $1,500 a month."

Another benefit of car-sharing is that she can collect the cars from stations located throughout the island.

She says: "This allows our staff to collect the car from the stations nearest to their home to go to work."

Being able to use the service has encouraged her colleague Patrik Tam to sell his car two years ago.

Says the 39-year-old property agent: "Having a car in Singapore is expensive. The upkeep of my previous car cost about $1,500 a month, which just was not worth it.

"Knowing I already had access to a car through car-sharing empowered me to finally let go of owning a car."

Flexibility of choosing a suitable car

Mr Nasri Najib (front row) taking his family on a weekend trip to Malaysia using a car from car-sharing service WhizzCar. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NASRI NAJIB

Technical consultant Nasri Najib, 34, does not own a car.

But that does not stop him from taking his entire family on trips to Malaysia at least once a month to buy groceries, get haircuts and shop for clothes, or to transport furniture to his new home. He has been using car-sharing service WhizzCar since 2008.

He says: "For me, car-sharing is the cheapest, most flexible option. I need to pay only for the period that I use the car. The car is easy to pick up. And the price is reasonable."

He pays about $70 for an extra- value plan every month - including membership - and this allows him to use the service more cheaply than a standard plan.

Whenever he wants to head north, he books a Mazda 5 2.0A MPV which can fit his whole family, including his wife, 32; son, two; and parents, both 59.

I like how the service lets me choose different types of vehicles. When transporting items, I need a larger vehicle.

MR NASRI NAJIB, a technical consultant

He typically uses the car for 24 to 30 hours and this usually costs him $200 to $300, including petrol and insurance.

He says: "If I rent a car for the same purpose, it would cost me more than $400. I would also have to go through the trouble of collecting the car from a rental company, which can be in a remote location like the airport."

He appreciates the flexibility of car-sharing, he adds.

"Every month, I get some free kilometres which I can use for the service and I am thankful that I can accumulate these free kilometres if I can't use them during certain periods."

Mr Nasri, who is preparing to move into his new BTO four-room HDB flat in Buangkok, has also been using the service to transport furniture to his new place.

He typically buys the furniture - sofas, shelves, children's playhouses - on online marketplace Carousell and collects the items using a Nissan NV200 1.5M van which he also hires through WhizzCar.

"I like how the service lets me choose different types of vehicles. When transporting items, I need a larger vehicle."

Most days, he and his family move around on public transport.

"We decided very early on not to buy a car because owning one in Singapore is very expensive.

"Having to deal with COE payments is not a fun thing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'Who needs to buy a car?'. Print Edition | Subscribe