Prologue. Carsharing: A One Percent Solution

(And why it is a critical 1%)

This article is excerpted from the opening pages of our on-going report for the Dutch government Knowledge Platform for Transport and Mobility (KpVV)which will be available from them this month. Contact: Mr. Friso Metz, Friso.Metz@kpvv.nl. Your comments are welcome here or to the author: erc.britton@ecoplan.org

carshare street markingThe learning process has been long and painful. But it is soon 2015, 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 , heavily interactive 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 rich bouquet of new mobility services.

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.

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 mobility 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 share-car 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 mobility option in that place (which unfortunately to now in most places is not the case . . . bug stay tuned, that is morphing fast).

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 mobility option obliges you to think about your trip before actually taking it. It is no longer a matter of just finding the keys, racing down the stairs, jumping into our faithful 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 even if that is only one click away, 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 carshare operations achieve this, here is the next quasi-invisible contribution of our so-called 1% solution.

On top of this, since carshare operations are increasingly oriented to information and communications technologies, this means that carsharers on average tend to be more oriented to making daily use of their digital links– though at this point this is an altogether, unscientific personal guess on my part — which suggests 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 links for car or other physical trips. This might mean teleshopping, telemedicine, telework, televisiting, or other tele-options, all of which often endsup each time with one less car on the road. One transaction, one saving, 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.

 

# # #

 

Eric Britton
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, business and civil society 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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4 thoughts on “Prologue. Carsharing: A One Percent Solution

  1. Note that “one way” carsharing (Car2Go, etc.) enables “spontaneous” mode choice during the course of other activities. But the point about complementarity is absolutely the most important point. Carsharing complements the other modes in ways that supports their continued use/preferencing because car share enables transporting multiple people, extranormal trips, movement of extremely large parcels, etc.

    Not knowing how the rest of your report will play out, another element in terms of complementarity and planning is considering carsharing as an element of managing parking supply and parking demand. The reduction in the number of cars owned by households that adopt carsharing helps to ease parking demand and adds to supply in constrained urban neighborhoods. This is a focus by Hoboken (look up articles in the New York Times). By contrast, while that is an issue in DC, the DC Government looks at carsharing permitting as more of a revenue function, and has adopted some practices wrt payment for spaces that are counterproductive in enabling more widespread use of carsharing because it pushes prices up.

    Similarly, promoting access to car rental is another strategy that can support households not owning cars and making it a more widespread practice. But many people are fine with the convenience of car share and less concerned that by doing traditional car rental, it can be cheaper when needing to use a car for longer periods of time.

    Note that last year we visited Seattle, and I thought we should rent a car, my wife didn’t. So we didn’t rent a car. Between light rail, bus, a couple of rides from friends, a couple uses of Car2Go (including when we needed to transfer from light rail to bus to get to our accommodation while carrying luggage, and we happened to see a car) and a couple uses of Zipcar, we got around fine without having a rental car. An advantage of carsharing membership is that it can be used in other cities where the services operate.

    Reply
  2. P.S. I had occasion to use electric SmartCar Car2Go service in San Diego. While the standard SmartCar has a pretty jerky transmission and so the rides are somewhat uncomfortable (maybe that’s a good thing, to discourage car use in favor of other modes), the electric smartcar drove like a dream. But I didn’t get the car from or return it to a charging station, so I didn’t experience that element of how the system works.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: How Can Suburban Communities Repair Disconnected Streets? | Streetsblog.net

  4. This is a brilliant experesssion! I liked especially the beginning:

    “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”.”

    Reply

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