Meet the Innovator sharing cars to improve community cohesion

Rural car club co-founder Susan Ross is developing a community vehicle sharing framework for use across the country, after securing support and funding from Connected Places Catapult.

Susan Ross knows exactly what it feels like to be cut off from the outside world. As a teenager, the project consultant worked for the family business on Holy Island where the North Sea floods a causeway linking the mainland twice a day. Several years later, Susan was helping former coalmining communities in Nottinghamshire apply for funding to support outreach initiatives for local people.

Few professionals will be better suited, it could be said, to help grow a community car club in a rural area with limited public transport, and take the next step towards introducing a national network of volunteer-led vehicle sharing services.

Susan is the co-founder of the Derwent Valley Car Club based around the village of Blackhall Mill just outside Tyneside; only 11 miles south-west of Newcastle, but an hour by bus. The club has around 84 members who share five electric vehicles. But what sets this car club apart from more commercial competitors is its community focus: half of journeys are delivered by volunteers who take elderly and vulnerable neighbours on trips to the shops, and to see friends and family.

“From day one we didn’t just want this club to be about cars; it was always about supporting other people who couldn’t drive themselves, so they could get out and about,”
Susan Ross, co-founder of the Derwent Valley Car Club

Discussions about setting up a car club began over a decade ago, before the need became pressing. “There used to be a relatively good bus service from the village, but the community association was thinking ahead and realised it wasn’t always going to be that way,” she adds. “Buses still serve Blackhall Mill, but they are not as frequent, and some routes have been cut.”

The community decided it needed a better way of helping residents get around, as well as encouraging more sustainable means of travel; so the car club was born. Susan got involved after a community newsletter came through her door, featuring a request for a part time co-ordinator.

“I thought that’s right up my street, so I applied,” she remembers.

Today, Susan project manages the car club a few hours a week, and spends most of her working time as the Head of Projects at design thinking consultancy Edge Innovation. Last summer her employer secured £30,000 from the Transport Research and Innovation Grants (TRIG) programme – delivered by Connected Places Catapult on behalf of the Department for Transport – to take the principles of the Derwent Valley scheme and develop a new ‘Car Club in a Box’ model for use elsewhere.

Keeping a close eye on the tides

Susan Ross was born in Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish/English border, “a small town where everybody knows each other. Living there made me understand how local communities work.” The family business on nearby Holy Island – a winery called Lindisfarne Mead – is part of an even smaller community, where weekly changes in the high tide times have an impact on staff shift patterns and when deliveries can be made.

“You had to plan ahead to receive materials such as glassware to the winery and get the finished product off the island for sale elsewhere,” she says. The business also sells regional produce including cheese and beer from North Yorkshire, and Susan – who worked there weekends and holidays – remembers racing out and back to buy goods from a wholesaler; leaving just enough time to get off the island again before the road closed.

Susan enjoyed geography at school, studied tourism and marketing at university, and secured a job with the charity Nottinghamshire Rural Community Council as a regeneration officer, working with town and parish councils on efforts to reduce social exclusion and increase community engagement.

After two years she joined North Kesteven District Council in Lincolnshire to become a community partnerships manager, where she helped secure funds to boost community infrastructure and tourism development and award funding to deserving causes. These included building community facilities and supporting transport schemes such as Dial-a-Ride. She also supported the delivery of the Local Strategic Partnership: the strategy and community direction of the authority and its partners.

After their son was born, Susan and her husband decided to return north to be closer to family, and she worked part time as a freelance community consultant. One of her early projects involved a return to Holy Island to help with planning and funding for a new village hall. In 2020 she took on a voluntary role as director of community interest company JLJ, and two years ago started work with consultant Edge Innovation to apply human centred design thinking to services, technology and products to business of all sizes including small companies involved in transport and social enterprise.

Growing the car club’s reach

Derwent Valley Car Club’s focus was initially the village of Blackhall Mill, but its reach has grown far wider. Other car share firms tend to be more commercially focused, says Susan, whereas hers prides itself on its volunteer-led business model and working alongside local people; understanding their attachment to private vehicles to try and encourage more of them to try car sharing.

The service has also introduced more motorists to electric vehicles, and persuaded a few to switch from petrol and diesel models when replacing their private cars, she adds.

Average journeys in the shared cars are around 25 miles, with users reportedly travelling as far afield as the Lake District and the West Midlands. Each car club vehicle in the village is parked next to a charging point. Membership costs £5 a month, and the cars are hired for £4 an hour.

“We have found that members tend not to take the shared vehicles out as much as they would a private car, because they stop to think about their journey and whether it can be made by walking, cycling or by taking a bus instead.”

The club has also strengthened community ties says Susan, who recounts the story of an elderly and partially sighted lady who had a bad experience with a local taxi firm.

“She used to sing at a choir in the next village and used a taxi to get there and back. But one December the taxi never returned to pick her up, so she walked six miles home along a busy road with no streetlights. She got in contact with us, and we paired her with a volunteer driver who was recently bereaved and wanted to meet more people. The two are now good friends, and when the choir lady said she had never been on holiday before, our volunteer took her on a trip to the coast.”

Packaging up a model for delivery

The ‘Car Club in a Box’ model aims to work with local authorities and rural communities to understand their needs and create business plans for other sharing services. The concept has a network of volunteers at its core and features a bespoke automated booking system. Advice is offered on purchasing vehicles, installing charging posts and securing affordable insurance.

Money received last year from the TRIG programme is helping to take forward the framework, with the aim of piloting a similar car club elsewhere. “Connected Places Catapult has provided several useful contacts and brought our idea added credibility: suddenly more people want to speak to us,” she says.

Last autumn Susan was awarded an ‘Inspirational leadership’ award from the Department for Transport’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sarah Sharples for developing the community car sharing model. “I was absolutely stunned to win, but the scheme is not just about me; it’s about the whole team behind the car club.”

Putting communities first

Success for Susan would see the Derwent Valley Car Club continue to expand, and for the ‘Car Club in a Box’ model to be begin helping other communities.

She adds that human centred design is a key aspect in many worthwhile projects. “If you really understand who you’re developing something for – and appreciate people’s needs and concerns – you will develop a much better product or service.

“My fundamental philosophy is based on people and impact,” she says. “Only when you get those right should the commercial gain come too.”

Find out more about the Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme and keep your eyes peeled for future opportunities.