Car Sharing is Caring


By Cody Fenwick

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Stroll into any old car rental business and you’ll wait in line, talk to an employee, fill out paperwork, and wait for the staff to pull the car around before you get the keys. Though this model persisted for decades, an increasing demand for alternatives to car ownership has inspired a proliferation of models for car sharing that are much more flexible and convenient.

People turn away from traditional car ownership for various reasons, citing concerns about cost, environment, availability of parking, and more. BTR spoke to Susan Shaheen, Co-Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC), about the growth of car sharing options.

“By not having fixed costs associated with auto ownership in your transportation expenditures, [it] liberates an individual to take trips the way that fits their schedule and their choice the best,” she explains.

Shaheen describes four main types of car sharing:

1. Round trip: The most familiar form of car sharing, with the most similarities to traditional car rental. Customers typically pay a company by the hour to use a car, with the cost of insurance, fuel, maintenance, etc., included in the price. Zipcar is a an example.

2. One-way: A customer may use a car without having to return it to its original location. One-way models typically charge by the minute and may employ designated parking spaces in a variety of locations or simply use whatever parking is publicly available. Zipcar hopes to soon offer this kind of service, but DriveNow currently offers it.

3. Peer-to-peer: Individuals contribute their personal cars to a fleet managed by a third party, which connects customers to vehicles. Essentially, it’s AirBnB for personal transportation. Some services enable access to the car using a smartphone app, no key required. Examples include Getaround and Relay Rides.

4. Fractional ownership: Several individuals become co-owners of a single car. Cars come equipped with technology to reserve times and manage the shared use of the vehicle. Audi is currently running a pilot program of this type in Sweden.

According to Shaheen, some of these car sharing models could overlap. For instance, individuals who cooperate in a fractional ownership scheme might participate in peer-to-peer sharing if they find the car is unused for significant periods of time. Additionally, Zipcar’s foray into one-way services suggests that round trip providers might find economic efficiencies by embracing multiple models.

In addition to providing more choices and freedom for individual users, there are promising societal and environmental benefits to growth in car sharing. “There’s not a homogenous response to car sharing,” Shaheen explains. “For some people, they increase their use of public transport. For others, they drive more. But our research [at the TSRC) suggests at present that the net effect is actually more towards reduced vehicle miles traveled, more carpooling, more walking, more cycling.”

The data also suggests that, on the margin, car sharing reduces overall public transit ridership. Though it may be believed that one-way car sharing might lead people away from these more energy efficient forms of travel, in the broader scope of total behavioral impacts from car sharing, Shaheen is positive. If successful, the one-way car sharing model could potentially serve as a complement to public transit, bringing the benefit of subways and commuter rails to previously unreached populations.

“Governments could offer up grant programs to help to spread these concepts into other locations,” Shaheen says. “[Recently,] the California Air Resources Board issued a request proposal for $2.5 million for low-income car sharing.”

Other options for governmental assistance in promoting car sharing include waiving or reducing excise taxes on fleet vehicles and providing designated parking in public spaces. “Several cities across the US are looking more at expanding their car sharing parking programs, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston,” Shaheen notes. “There can be a lot of pushback from communities who perceive a reduction in parking.”

Neighborhoods are often wary to sacrifice precious parking spaces. But, Shaheen points out, “Round-trip car sharing has been documented to take 9 to 13 vehicles off the road [for every one car sharing vehicle].” So a block that designated a few square feet of road for car sharing vehicles might find itself with more, rather than less, parking space.

There are more kinks to be worked out. Suppose you rent your car to someone visiting town on business and they get into an accident. Who would be liable for any damages? You, the driver, or the third party service provider? A few states have passed laws to clarify these tricky legal issues, but more will have to follow suit as these kinds of cases accumulate.

There’s every reason to think we’ll only be hearing more about car sharing in the future. “Predominately, the younger individuals, well-educated, upwardly mobile, living in urban areas, tend to be the users of car sharing services at present,” Shaheen explains. “One of the ideas a lot of policy makers are talking about is how to mainstream these services and spread them to different geographical locations, as well as attract a more diverse range of users, say Baby Boomers, [individuals with disabilities], or individuals of lower income.”