The Automobile

To my surprise there was lengthy essay on car sharing in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, one of the most widely read magazines in the country. Since I had been involved in the development of the first commercial car sharing organization in this country, I had always wanted to write this article but I could never have done it was well as its author, Mark Levine, did. Levine discusses the history of the car sharing movement, the major car sharing organizations in this country, and how they are changing the way we drive automobiles.

For years I wanted to give up my car when I lived in Portland. Like so many others in the Northwest, I continued to be dismayed by the way the automobile had taken over the landscape. The countryside is cluttered with highways and urban sprawl. Cars, roadways, and garages dominate the major cities. Summer air quality alerts occur routinely now in Portland. Seattle is ranked in the top ten most heavily congested cities in the nation.

Similar situations exist in most of the major metropolitan areas of this country, while very little headway has been made in solving the many problems the automobile has brought to our communities. There is no mystery about this. Each time I thought of giving up my car, I pull back in the face of a long list of anticipated inconveniences, hassles, and endless delays. I am sure I’m not alone my thinking.

However, a few years ago I was pleased to be a part of a group of individuals who decided to try to do something about this dilemma. We were aware of the development of car sharing in Europe, especially in Switzerland and Germany. These programs were based on the notion that it is access to a car that is crucial. You didn’t have to own one for that. It was only necessary to have one available when you needed to drive somewhere.

A car-sharing organization consists of a group of individuals who share a fleet of cars much as members of a farm co-op share agricultural equipment or library users share books. Car sharing provides access to a vehicle when walking, cycling or public transit is not possible. It differs from auto renting by providing a car for very short periods, say for an hour. Members are usually charged only for the mileage and time they use the car with the full costs of maintenance, insurance, and fuel paid by the organization.

Here’s how it works. When you need a car, you simply reserve it for as long you want on the organization’s website. The cars are, typically located within three blocks of your residence at one of the permanent sites located throughout city neighborhoods. Today all you need to do is head over to the car you’ve reserved, swipe you membership card on the windshield, whereupon the door opens, fetch the key kept in the glove compartment and head off. When you’ve finished your trip, return the car to the place you picked it up and swipe the card again to lock the doors. Bingo--your fee is charged to your credit card.

Zipcar is the largest car sharing organization in this country with over 275,000 and 5,500 cars including those it also has in Canada and London. There are also several non-profit groups in this country and Canada that compete with the for-profit companies. Car sharing is clearly not for everyone but based on evidence collected in Europe and this country, it makes economic sense for individuals who drive less than 10,000 miles a year and do not have to commute to work every day. It also appeals to individuals who do not own a car or would like to give up one or more of those they own. Car-sharing also meets occasional transportation needs far less expensively than a taxi or rental service and more conveniently than public transit. Unlike owning a single car, it also provides access to a range of vehicles, such as a pick-up, minivan, or utility vehicle.

Do people drive less once they join a car sharing organization and thereby contribute in some small measure to the reduction of congestion and greenhouse gas emissions? In my view the research on this question is equivocal when the total vehicle miles of travel of automobile owners, who tend to drive less, is combined with the non-automobile owners who tend to drive more. What is clear, however, is that the car-owners are more likely to give up one or more of the cars they owned before joining the organization, which when it occurs across a large population of drivers can have an enormous impact on traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and petroleum usage.

I know that switching to a car sharing mode of travel will not be easy. But I also know it is time to do something about the transportation problems in this country. Joining a car sharing organization is one way to contribute to a solution. If other individuals make the same choice, we may, at long last, begin to make a dent in the rising financial and environmental costs of automobile driving.

I invite you to read the very excellent article in the Times if you are interested in knowing more about the car sharing concept, Or write to me for further references or information.