Car Sharing

I’d rather have a cleaner environment, but I can’t imagine me without my car.
Steph Willen

Many years ago I read a newspaper article about something called car sharing. It described a group in Switzerland whose members joined together to share the use of a few cars. I thought the notion made perfect sense. Not everyone needs to own their own car; how much better it would be, to say nothing of the cost savings, to have convenient access to a car only when you needed one.

At the time I was doing research on environmental issues, so I filed the article in one I called Transportation. Several years later as I was preparing a lecture on transportation solutions to the then energy crisis, I came across the article again. I began to think further about the idea and started talking about it with some colleagues.

Not long after, we formed a small group to plan a car sharing organization in Portland, Oregon. After many discussions and meetings with local officials, we obtained some start-up funds to initiate what turned out to be the first car sharing organization in this country. That was 1988. A few years later, a group (Flexcar) in Seattle began operating and within a few months Zipcar was formed in the greater Boston area.

Car Sharing Portland was never profitable and in time the owner sold it to Flexcar. A few years later, Zipcar purchased Flexcar and became the largest car sharing group in this country with branches in Canada and England. As the popularity of car sharing grew, the major car rental agencies that rent cars by the day, not hourly as in car sharing, became interested. And a few weeks ago Avis purchased Zipcar to add an hourly rental service at some of its locations.

This is how an innovation that begins on a local level, in a limited way, can expand and eventually be gobbled up by a large, world-wide organization. In a way, I am pleased to see this development, although the eventual benefit to individuals remains uncertain.

It is possible that Avis, as well as other rental car agencies that have added hourly rentals to their service may find it unprofitable and bring it to an end. Or they will raise the hourly rental rate to a point that it will be unaffordable for most users. That would leave the car sharing concept to those groups, who have remained independent and those recent variations--Car2Go, RelayRides, and one-way car sharing systems—that operate largely in this country and Europe.

In the beginning, many of us thought that car sharing would enable a person to drive less, reduce the number of cars they had and, in the long term, lead to less traffic congestion. To date, over twenty years after the start of car sharing in this country, these questions remain unanswered. At least much of the evidence is equivocal, although there is some reason to believe that it does reduce the number of cars a family has when they own more than one.

As car sharing grows and the number of users expands significantly, perhaps we’ll get a better reading on these questions. But for now, many of the environmental benefits of this transportation concept have yet to be realized.

As Scott La Vine wrote in a recent comment on the Avis-Zipcar merger, “Reductions in emissions, traffic levels and parking needs are possible – but planners will need to bear in mind these are not the only goals worth achieving, and that impacts are likely to change over time. It will take many years to fully understand the impa