CarSharing: A 1% solution (And why it is a critical 1%)

The learning process has been long and painful. But it is almost 2012, the results are in, and we now know this one thing for sure: There are no one single, mega-dollar, build-it, big bang, fix-it solutions for transportation systems reform. No, the process is far more complex than that. Successful 21st century transport policy depends on the coordination and integration of large numbers of, for the most part, often quite small things. Small perhaps in themselves, one by one, but when you put all these small things together you start to get the new and far better transportation systems that we need and deserve. Large numbers of small things, each doing their part in concert. We call them “one percent solutions”. And carsharing is part of that complex process.

Let’s be modest and sensible when talk about carsharing and the role it can play in the new mobility mix of our cities. At no time in the traffic stream will carshare vehicles be carrying more than some small percentage of all travelers needing to get to their destination in around the city. That, in the eyes of some, consign it to being no more than a detail, that is to say a minor area of mobility provision and public policy which does not require close attention on the part of the public authorities and those responsible for the good functioning of our cities.

That would be a huge mistake. What we need to understand is that their contribution is measured not in terms of the specific numbers of people being transported in these shared vehicles at any point in time. Rather it is the manner in which this particular transportation option fits in with and strategically supports and completes \ the rest of what we like to call a bouquet of new mobility services.

There are times when many of us who are able to drive find ourselves in a position that our “private car” looks like our best, fastest and even cheapest solution for specific kinds of transportation tasks or obligations. That makes it a formidable competitor. But it is not the end of the story.

The now-abundant carshare literature is filled with explanations of the actual role, limitations and contributions of this “minor” mobility mode — and
one striking message that it brings up time and again is that carsharing tends to catch on best in places where it can provide it a complementary mobility option, in combination with a palette of other transport services and policies. That of course explains why we need to plan and integrates carsharing into the city’s overall mobility package – and not as something we can afford to deal with or let happen in some kind of policy vacuum.

We know from numerous studies done over the last decade that people who convert from own-car to carsharing modify their mobility mix in a number of ways, and invariably end up doing more walking, more cycling, (including public bicycles if available), take public transport, or even hail or call taxis when they are available as a serious transportation option in that place (which unfortunately to now in most places is not the case). Or to put it in a phrase, carsharers tend function as low-carbon, multi-modal travelers.

There is another albeit almost invisible mobility factor that needs to be taken into account for our carsharers, and that is that because of the fact that this particular transportation option obliges you to think about your trip before actually taking it. It is no longer a matter of just running down the stairs, jumping into our car and going where we want to go when we want to go — regardless of what may be the traffic situation, the difficulties involved in parking, and of course without any attention whatsoever to the environmental or climate impacts of our trip. This pattern of behavior has become so familiar to all of us that we simply cannot see it as something which is not only seriously antisocial but also in many instances against our own best interest. Obviously we need some help.

Carshare users by contrast as a result of the way the system works are obliged to give some prior thought to that next car trip (they have to reserve, etc.), and beyond this, they are helped in terms of more rational behavior to the extent in which each trip carries a specific price tag which is right before their nose. Indeed, if many of us knew the actual cost of that next trip in our own car, we might hesitate about making it, or at least implicitly start to get involved in travel planning at this most personal level. Better travel planning means fewer trips, and since c operations achieve this, here is the next quasi-invisible contribution of our so-called 1% solution.

On top of this, since carshare operations tend to be the most part IT oriented in a number of ways, this means that carsharers on average tend to be more oriented to making daily use of their IT equipment — though at this point this is a total unscientific personal guess on my part — which suggests to me that many if not all will often be potential users of the steadily increasing array of “distance technologies” which in many cases allow us to substitute electronic messaging or contact for car or other trips. This might mean teleshopping, telemedicine, telework, televisiting, or other tele-options, all of which often ends up each time with one less car on the road. One transaction, one trip at a time.

The bottom line:

The move to sustainable transportation, sustainable cities and sustainable lives will come about not as a results of harsh laws, ubiquitous policing and state-imposed choices. In most countries around the world this thing we so easily call democracy comes with a certain number of ground rules for government. And that is if we wish to create a climate of change, we need to do this by offering more and better choices from the arrangements now in place. Many of us get locked into our cars and the life style that goes with it. But carsharing provides a palatable, even attractive option for many, and this is what we need to build on and reinforce. “Better than car” mobility. And carsharing is part of that process.

# # #

Author’s note:
This is an informal series of statements, however they are based on extensive observation with carsharing and new mobility projects in many places over more than a decade. A careful perusal of the literature will support all or at least most of what is summarized above, but for now my task is simply to plant the seed and invite you to take this your own step further.

Author/Editor
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is MD of EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. His forthcoming book, “Toward a General Theory of Transport in Cities”, is being presented, discussed and critiqued in a series of international conferences, master classes, workshops and media events over 2014. (More at http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7)

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3 thoughts on “CarSharing: A 1% solution (And why it is a critical 1%)

  1. Eric, could you provide a short bibliography of the literature that you mention? That would be very interesting and help those of us working more from walking and cycling integrate it into our messages too. Is there information on how this is similar/different in developing countries where car mode shares remain very low? Thanks. Lake

    Reply
    • Dear Lake,

      You ask a good and tough question. There as I am sure you are well aware an abundant biblio on carsharing, and to comb this deep base my best counsel to you will be to encourage you to take a tour of ouir specialized “new mobility knowledge browser” http://www.knoogle.newmobility. We have worked hard for some time now to make it into a useful and better focuses research tool for work in our field, and it should help.

      The matter of the fit of carsharing both with public policy in general and of course in the developing countries is a meal that we all still have to cook. In my view the best way to move ahead on this is not in the lab or library , but to get out into the field with the support of the appropriate organizations and to begin to fashion it by way of leading example of policy and practice in a certain number of places. Once the way has been shown, I am confident that useful things will follow.

      PS. And of course I do not intend to stop here on this.

      Reply
  2. Eric,

    Thanks for this great post. You are looking at the industry from a fresh perspective, and I agree with many of your points. Here in Buffalo, NY we are working to move beyond a 1% solution (although with 500 members at Buffalo CarShare, we are still far from that goal!).

    We are attempting to push the envelope in two ways: first, as you describe, by expanding the service in the context of other modes. We are studying potential for integrating the system with bicycle sharing and vanpooling. Secondly, however, we are working to broaden the appeal of neighborhood-based car sharing beyond the relatively narrow market it currently serves. Part of that means addressing the IT savvy nature of the business – making car sharing more accessible to those in our society who are not so tech savvy, and part of our challenge also involves breaking down financial barriers for potential members.

    Roughly 50% of our members come from households making $25,000 or less, and this is certainly new territory for the industry. The challenge for us now is scaling up!

    You can read more in our two-year impact report:

    http://www.buffalocarshare.org/Buffalo%20CarShare%202yr%20report%20-%20print.pdf

    Feel free to give us a ring if you’d like to discuss our model further. We have high hopes that there are many other cities out there that could embrace our model, so we’re eager for attention!

    Reply

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