Northern Ireland’s first pay-as-you-go car club has fallen prey to the recession — less than a year after it was launched at Stormont.
Green transport initiative Whizzgo has folded its Belfast operation to concentrate on longer established branches elsewhere in the UK.
Scheme members paid an annual subscription allowing them to hire one of a fleet of low-emission Citroens for less than than £5 an hour. They were able to swap car ownership for car club membership, picking up cars when needed from six locations across the city centre including Central Station and Great Victoria Street.
The car club was originally brought to Belfast by developer the Carvill Group to serve its forthcoming city centre development at Sirocco Quay, which is due to be completed in 2012. At the time the group said the scheme would allow it to replace car parks with car club spaces, allowing more affordable homes to be built in the city centre.
Whizzgo area manager Michael Davis said the group’s UK headquarters had carried out an analysis of which areas were profitable and had closed a number of locations including Belfast to concentrate on the areas where it was most successful.
“When you introduce something like this to any new location, it takes some time to become accepted. It depends on the level of take-up and we had expected that that would take at least a couple of years,” Mr Davis said.
“But with what has happened in the wider economy, it is difficult for smaller companies like Whizzgo to get funding.
“It’s difficult for a loss-making operation to get funding in the hope that they will be profitable in a couple of years.”
Members were allocated a Smartcard with a PIN and could book a car over the internet or by phone up to a year in advance. The scheme allowed people who normally used public transport to have access to a car if they needed it and return it to the same place, rather than having to buy one of their own for such eventualities.
By the time the scheme closed around 90 individual motorists had signed up to Whizzgo along with a number of companies including Translink and Business in the Community.
Mr Davis said: “I think there is a culture in Northern Ireland where people love their cars and love the independence of the cars. I think that would change, given time, but it wasn’t given long enough.”
A Carvill Group spokesman said: “The Carvill Group has been working with Whizzgo car sharing clubs for some years now and we are disappointed they are pulling out of Northern Ireland.
“We have identified a new operator with whom we are finalising negotiations and hope to have the car club up and running again in the coming months.”