MARK HODGSON – A Sustainability Road Map
All content and photos by Joff Alexander-Frye
We live in a cyclical society. Every year or two, there will be a new innovation, social trend or emerging cause that becomes popular and gains significant media attention. For example, I need only to say, ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’, ‘Blue Planet II’ or ‘Doing the Floss’ to conjure up instantly recognisable trends of recent years.
One such example that is proving not to be a fly-by-night trend, but rather a sustainable and self-propelling movement, is that of electric cars and bikes.
When considering ways that urban environments in particular can become greener and healthier places to live, you will be hard pressed to think of a better, more tangible way of making a positive environmental impact than the exploration and use of such technology.
So, for our recent ‘Green Edition’ I didn’t have to think very long or hard before deciding that one of the people that I wanted to talk with was Mark Hodgson, co-founder and MD of Co-Cars (a hire-by-the-hour car club, set up in Exeter in 2005). Mark also set up Co-Bikes in 2016, which is run on a similar business-model to ‘Boris Bikes’ in London but with every bike in his fleet being electric (a U.K first). In setting up both of these businesses in the same city, Mark developed only the second environmentally conscious and flexible vehicle hiring service, offering both cars and bikes, in the UK.
I recently met with Mark for a coffee at Cosy Club, Exeter to discuss his journey in business and what the future looks like for sustainable travel in our city.
Born and brought up near Wellington, Mark explained that his environmental consciousness can be traced as far back as his childhood when, having grown up playing on farms and in fields, he walked one day up onto the Blackdown Hills and saw a huge roadworks project starting and more cement than he had ever seen being laid (forming what we now know and love to be the M5). Even at a young age, that felt wrong to him.
A keen cyclist, Mark eventually went on to study Geography and then became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. This love for geography lead Mark to work on sustainable development projects and film productions in Africa, Asia and Europe.
He tells of the first time that he came to vote in Exeter and, having turned up at the hustings event to hear what each candidate had to say, saw a man arrive on a bicycle and proceed onto the staging area to answer questions. That was Ben Bradshaw MP, who has been a member of the car club since Mark started it.
After his work as a geographer, Mark then pursued a career in Business Consultancy and charity work, both of which he continues to do to this day. He is a busy, but happy man. He took some time out of business in 2001 to work towards an MBA in Sustainable Business at the University of Exeter. This developed into an increasingly close relationship with the University where Mark has since lectured on sustainability and who support Co-Cars and Co-Bikes.
Sat at the core of Mark’s belief-system is that there are alternative, more environmentally friendly ways of doing things. We might not have all the answers yet as a society, but Mark certainly seems like the sort of guy who will not stop until he has found some of them. And he has had a consistent curiosity and drive to answer some of the questions around environmentally positive transport alternatives. For example, he works closely with one of the world’s leading companies developing hydrogen-fuelled cars. His focus tends to rest on things that benefit people, the environment and the economy. After all, any idea that is able to achieve those three elements is a potent and lucrative one, for sure.
The Co-Cars car club was born in 2005 in Topsham when Mark managed to get a £3500 grant from the Big Lottery which he used to lease a Vauxhall Corsa which was parked at the back of the Library, with a key safe and a rudimentary booking system online. It was, at the time, one of the first car clubs in the country and was a social enterprise (and still is). I worked with Exeter City Council and convinced them not to shell out tens of thousands of pounds on a consultant to tell them whether a car club could work in the city but, rather, to release some of that money to me gradually as I set up and proved the concept in real time.
Then in 2010, once the concept had essentially been proven, they were successful along with Devon County Council in securing funding from the Department for Transport (DFT) which enabled them to kick things up a notch and introduce telemetry into their cars (allowing them to start using a card-scanning system to log location and journey information).
With an increasing number of locations around the city and the region, the Co-Cars fleet has grown impressively quickly, now over thirty-strong. An increasing number of these cars have been hybrids or full electric cars too. And with twenty-three bikes currently available for use (and 55 more on order) the trend towards reducing personal vehicle ownership and opting for flexible vehicle hire instead is seemingly increasing. This has also been helped by a partnership with Great Western Railway who have agreed that Co-Cars can park outside all of their train stations across the region.
Mark proudly unpacked his love of ‘circular business’ and making the most of one’s assets. Instead of a linear approach where you purchase an asset, use it and then throw it away, to employ a circular approach means to re-manufacture or lease an asset once you have got your use from it. More of a sharing mindset than a traditional or transactional one.
For his business, the main manifestation of this approach is that most cars on the road are used about 3% of the time. Co-cars on the other hand, due to their shareability and flexibility, are in use around 25% of the time; a significant increase of efficiency and a more productive asset commercially. And with all of their energy that is used at their charge points being ‘good energy’ (i.e. all from renewables), there is a zero-carbon footprint on the use of their electric cars too, so both economical and environmentally healthy.
Mark laughed as he quipped
“People question why anyone would want to share a car. They used to say the same thing about people sharing beds, but now it is called Airbnb! It’s cool and if you don’t do it, you are the odd one out. My aim to get to the same point with car-sharing. And with the rise of autonomous cars, very few people will own their own one. They will all be shared. With over 90% of car journeys being under a 70-mile range, the rise of electric and autonomous cars is only going to gather pace in the coming years. We simply don’t need cars that can do 400 miles on a tank of fuel anymore (or at least not many of us).”
Mark finished by telling me about a book called ‘Peak Car: The Future of Travel’ by Professor David Metz which outlines how mankind is falling out of love with the car. In particular it unpacks how, over the last fifteen years, the number of car owners has dropped, the number of people holding a driving licence has dropped, the average age of a licence holder has increased, and the annual mileage of the average driver has dropped by over 1500 miles. So, less people own cars and, even the ones that do, drive them less.
I found Mark to be a passionate, motivated man who really seemed to be on a mission. And with his schemes growing at the pace they currently are, it seems that he is accomplishing that mission.