Having Your Car and Eating it, Too

By Tooker Gomberg, Montreal, Canada.

Car sharing is a convenient and economical alternative to ownership.

Any city dweller would agree: there are too many cars, and we all suffer the consequences. From air pollution to noise and stress, from injury to death, cars promise convenience and mobility but often deliver hassle and expense. Paying for that movement can be nearly as expensive as paying for a place to live.

In cities the absurdity of the growing car population becomes apparent. There is no room to put them all: functional buildings are torn down to make space for parking, and street space that could be used for trees, playing, or bicycle lanes is instead dedicated to car storage.

Automobile use is growing twice as fast as population. And sprawl is growing even faster. Over the last few decades some cities (i.e. New York and Chicago) have grown in area at twelve times the rate of population of population growth.

Cars: can’t live with them, yet many feel they can’t live without them. The Economist recently commemorated the car’s centennial with a section called Taming the Beast. “The product that has so strongly shaped the urban world we live in, and brought such wealth and such pleasure, is now seen by many as . . . a blessing turning into a curse.”

Bicycling can be a fun and healthful way to get around, and transit can often get you there quicker and cheaper than driving, but most people find the convenience and ease of getting around by car so attractive that they couldn’t imagine giving it up, even for the common good.

Not that owning and operating a car is cheap. In 1995 the Canadian Automobile Association estimated the annual cost to own and operate a sub-compact at $7,700 annually. And numerous studies suggest that there are significant hidden costs that society at large pays that in effect subsidize car ownership. If the owner paid the full costs of health care, air pollution, highway and road building and maintenance, ambulance, and police, they would be paying as much as $5,000 more per year.

But the fact is, once you own the car you tend to drive it. Since the day to day costs are low, why take the bus when the car is sitting there? Or why sweat it cycling when it’s so easy to just turn a key?

Therein lies the conundrum. Is there any way to have the occasional convenience of a car without the hassle?

Enter car sharing. A group of people share cars, and share the expenses as well. Over the past ten years a sophisticated system of car sharing has developed in Europe. There are now more than 15,000 subscribers in over 200 organizations sharing vehicles, thereby avoiding buying their own cars. The impetus has been to protect the environment by reducing the number of cars produced (the amount of energy required to manufacture a car is nearly equivalent to the amount of energy used in two years of operation), as well as to reduce the amount of parking needed. An average of from twelve to twenty people can share a single car.

A few years ago Benoit Robert of Quebec City began extensive research into the European programs. He investigated why some programs failed, and others flourished, and in 1994 he founded this continent’s most successful program in Quebec City called Auto-Com. He then helped to co-found a newer group in Montreal called CommunAuto.

Here’s how it works. You loan the group $500 for the duration of your membership, pay an annual fee of between $35 to $350 (less if you’re an occasional user, more if you use it a lot) and a mileage and hourly rate. Not only do you save on the hassle of insuring, registering, and maintaining a car, but you can save up to $3,000 if you drive less than 16,000 km. per year. No small change.

As a member you can phone in and reserve a car any day between 7 am and 10 pm, and you’re directed to a lot in your neighbourhood. (So far in Quebec the cars are only easily accessible in a few neighbourhoods). You have a key to open a theft proof lockbox in the lot and away you go. In the car’s glovebox is a form where you indicate distance travelled and time used. Every month you receive a detailed bill.

Since you pay on the basis of use, the less you drive the less you pay. Members still tend to use their bikes for smaller trips, and also still find transit to be a good choice when available. But late at night, in a blizzard, or on the weekend when transit service diminishes, the shared car is an attractive option for many. And if you need a bicycle rack one is readily available.

The European systems have become quite sophisticated: some will guarantee the delivery of a vehicle to your house within 15 minutes, others offer members 24 hour reservation services, discounts on urban and inter-urban transit service, even reduced taxi rates. Membership in one city allows access to services in over 70 cities. One can take the train to another city and then rent a car or a bike to use while there. Often cargo bicycles and trailers are also available.

The environmental impacts can be substantial. The pioneer of car-share programs, Berlin’s Stattauto (which means “instead of a car”, but sounds like “city car”), is also the largest with 140 vehicles and 3200 members, an average of 23 people per vehicle. One study showed that when people joined the program 54% sold their car, and 13% renounced a car purchase that they were planning. About one third never owned a car.

Another study from Germany concluded that 12 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be avoided if, within ten years, the potential market for car sharing in Germany was reached, namely 2.45 million users. With Stattauto’s annual growth rate of over 50%, those targets don’t seem impossible.

By not owning a car you tend to drive less. The experience in the Netherlands suggests that participants reduce their car usage by 30%.

Here in Canada interest also seems potent. A group in Vancouver is on the verge of launching, and others in Victoria, Ottawa and Toronto are proceeding apace. The word seems to be getting out: car sharing is a viable alternative to owning a car. With dollars saved, fewer car hassles, and reduced stress on the earth, more interest is bound to grow.

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