Word on the Street: Can Car-Sharing Make a Difference?

Now that you know what car-sharing is, and are aware that it can work for some of us (city dwellers, we’re looking at you!), we think it’s important to look a little more closely at the potential benefit that car-sharing can bring the world; not necessarily as a singular practice that will save the planet — we already know there are financial and environmental benefits — but as a paradigm shift in the way we get around, as a barometer for social change and the possibility of ending (or changing, at least) the American love affair with the car.

In an excellent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, writer Matthew DeBord uses the recent Flexcar-Zipcar merger as a springboard for a few excellent points [www.latimes.com], noting that, “I’ve been using Flexcar in downtown Los Angeles for two years, and in all that time, I’ve never seen nor interacted with another member. I’ve never spoken to a Flexcar representative on the phone. Yet the system has been immensely reliable. I reserve a neat, white Honda Civic hybrid online, pick it up down the street at the appointed hour and, after my errand or outing, return it to its designated spot in a hotel parking structure. The system is smooth, impersonal and inexpensive — the antithesis of the dreary airport rental-car counter, with its yawning lines and niggling forms.

“Individual ownership of something as complicated and labor intensive as transportation gradually will be supplanted by collective ownership of (or membership in) a vast system that provides abundant mobility options with all of the carbon-credit upsides and none of the congestion-charge headaches. The personal automobile may continue to have a place of pride in the driveway, but it won’t be at the top of the food chain anymore. Transportation will finally achieve true mass distribution. And in the end, we will have car sharing, whatever becomes of it, to thank for cracking the code.”

The World CarShare Consortium [ecoplan.org] holds similar views, which has driven (no pun intended) the development of their New Mobility Agenda [www.ecoplan.org], which has been ongoing since 1988. It offers “new thinking and open collaborative group problem solving, bringing together several hundred of the leading thinkers and actors in the field from more than fifty counties world-wide, sharing information and considering together the full range of problems and eventual solution paths that constitute the global challenge of sustainable transport [www.sundance.tv] in cities.” Essentially, it represents an attempt to avoid the traffic problems pictured above; this is car-sharing taken up a notch, as they scale their ideas up to the global level while focusing on creating change on a city-by-city basis. What are the car-sharing, sustainable transport [www.sundance.tv] implications in a city like Paris, compared to somewhere like Los Angeles? As much a study in the sociology of development as in sustainability, the Consortium offers a tremendous amount of interesting, high-level thinking, and enough to get anyone on board with the idea.

Further, the WorldCarShare [groups.yahoo.com] Yahoo! group offers ongoing discussion and a sounding board for these ideas. An extension of the Consortium, it represents the “Idea Factory” for spreading the good word, strategizing on ways to help the industry grow, and sounding board for anyone who has questions — simple or complex, beginner to pro — about what makes car-sharing go. And, because it’s a forum rather than a static website, it offers a unique opportunity to engage other users in discussion about the practicality and usability of this system, as well as where the industry has come from, and where it’s going.

All of these resources point to one conclusion: as more people move back into cities and technology continues to improve, personal transportation will become more of a service commodity than a matter of ownership. And car-sharing could very well be at the front of the charge.