Carsharing and car culture

While I am a proponent of effective public transit systems for many kinds of intracity travel. I am also aware of the need for other modes of transportation to meet the needs of different kinds of trips. Private car use in cities (especially single-occupancy vehicles) is over-represented and over-subsidized in most North American cities, but cars are undeniably useful for many kinds of trips. How much car travel is too much? At what point do the environmental and social costs of excessive car use outweigh the benefits of the freedom of travel?

Carsharing is an increasingly popular option which allows users to access the benefits of car travel for trips where it is clearly beneficial over other modes, while also reducing the societal and personal costs of massive car use. But does a growth in carsharing actually reinforce “car culture” and automobile dependence? (I refer to car culture in this instance as the infrastructure and systems that make private car use necessary, rather than appealing or desirable.)

Emily Badger’s piece in the Atlantic Cities clearly makes the point that even if people are using carshare vehicles rather than privately owned automobiles, they are still using “the infrastructure, the parking garages and highways and curb space that we¬†turn over to cars at great expense“. There is evidence (from the Economist, for example), that each carshare vehicle can replace 15 privately owned vehicles, so this effectively allows a more effective use of automobile infrastructure such as parking and road space.

However, the key point that Badger addresses is that participating in carsharing actually changes driving behaviour. I think this is because of the different cost model, compared to private car ownership.

Having previously owned a vehicle, I paid a number of significant fixed costs throughout a given year (insurance, maintenance, depreciation, etc). In comparison, the variable costs of driving (fuel, wear and tear), were minimal. I thought little about taking spontaneous short trips in my car, since these effectively cost little when I was already paying a lot for the fixed costs.

Carsharing ingeniously shifts the cost burden from fixed to variable. With the programs I use (car2go and Modo), apart from small administrative costs at the outset, I only pay when I use the vehicles. As a result, I’m aware of the cost of every single car trip, and I choose to use a carshare vehicle only when it is clearly necessary or more useful than another mode, such as public transit or walking. I drive far less than when I owned a vehicle.

My experience is not unique. Modo claims that members drive an average of 1400 km per year, which is substantially less than average motorists.

By continuing to drive (albeit far less), am I still reinforcing the need for automobiles? Not really. Even widespread carsharing adoption puts less strain on infrastructure than private automobile use, as explained above.

Moreover, carsharing is only effective in city areas where the car is an option rather than a requirement. In car-dependent areas, residents must own and use cars because it is ineffective, unsafe, or impossible to choose other modes such as public transit, cycling or walking. Carsharing would be ineffective as few people would choose to pay to use a carshare vehicle when they are already paying for a private vehicle.

By contrast, areas with frequent, accessible public transit and numerous amenities accessible by walking and cycling already give residents the choice to own a private vehicle or not. People who require a vehicle for work or personal use, or who choose to drive a lot will find private ownership more cost effective than carsharing, so there is little worry of people overusing carsharing programs.

People who live in these latter areas (transit-oriented development) tend to walk, cycle, and use public transit more than residents in other areas as they are cheaper and more effective transport options. Carsharing is merely supplemental for trips where a car is beneficial.

Carsharing is growing in areas where car use is already optional. A shift to more sustainable development, where “alternative” transit options are usable and effective does increase carshare use, but it simultaneously decreases car ownership, and thus overall car use.

Should we lament the popularity of carsharing as a reinforcement of car culture? On the contrary – we can see its success in correlation with an increase in the sustainable development patterns that allow it to thrive.