The BlueCity electric hire cars (which, despite their name, are red) will soon disappear from Battersea’s streets. Despite some success with a ‘Hire-in-Gatwick, drop-off-in-London’ trial, the operators struggled to get sufficient use to make the £5-per-half-hour service profitable, and plan to close down for good next week. BlueCity was a brave experiment, and it’s a shame to see them go. We’ve previously reported on the local electric car charging options, and noted the tricky situation of the cars having to be stored in the ‘electric cars only’ spaces – which then meant that these publicly-funded spaces weren’t really available for other people wanting to charge electric cars.
There were other problems. The company found itself having to negotiate separately with every single London Borough to build, or gain access to, charging points, which proved quite challenging. Wandsworth were quite proactive, but other boroughs seem not to have been interested. The cars had to be parked somewhere they could charge, and charging bays in popular spots tended to be full. And when the cars were fully charged, they could then block the spaces for days until someone else hired them. Unlike Zipcar, the BlueCity scheme never managed to get the same level of public attention, and maybe it never reached the scale & coverage where it was worth advertising widely.
Does this mean the end of electric hire cars?
Almost certainly not. The BlueCity service was always going to be a bit of an experiment at first, and may have been a bit ahead of its time. Unusually, the company made its own electric cars and batteries – designed to be robust and more suitable for public use, and at least in theory a lot simpler to maintain than standard cars with petrol engines. When we see chargers become far more widespread, and when it becomes easier to use fast charging points run by various different companies without needing a completely different account and system each time (so cars can be dropped off and picked up far more widely), this sort of service should be easier to develop.
The previous, difficult experiment in Paris
BlueCity was based on a similar, earlier business that their parent company ran in Paris (called Autolib’), which was also closed down recently. As in London, the main difficulty was making the business profitable, although with central government backing they got to critical mass more quickly there and had plenty of users. They did, however, face a variety of uniquely ‘Parisian’ problems (NB: link in French) including cars getting endlessly broken in to and used as shelters and / or for drug taking, and a level of vandalism that we haven’t really seen in London (over 20 cars were set on fire!). The shutdown in Paris was also more problematic – not least as the local authorities in Paris had often paid to install the charging points, but many were left with useless infrastructure after the scheme closed and the charging points stopped working overnight. They had also installed dozens of small kiosks on the pavement to help signing up new customers, which were immediately redundant and quickly became dilapidated.
…but there’ll be no change for the SourceLondon charging points the cars used.
The SourceLondon charging points – which there are a few of near Lavender Hill – are also owned by the same parent company (French industrial giant Bollore). With a network of over 1000 charging points (far more than the initial number of BlueCity cars), it seems that these have found a reasonable level of use and will continue to run as normal – indeed, they may be easier to access if they’re not always occupied by the rental cars. There are a few local issues (for example, we’ve heard that the chargers in Westfield’s car parks are all out of order as the contract to run them wasn’t renewed) but by and large, these seem to be actively managed and get reasonable reviews. Having spoken to the representatives of both companies, we understand that SourceLondon will not be affected by the end of BlueCity – it’ll be business as usual.