Road Closed Ahead: Why Only Second-Generation Carsharing Can Move the Car-Free-Cities Agenda (2008)

Transcription of my oral remarks at “Towards CarFree Cities” International Conference, Portland, June 18, 2008:

[NOTE: The organizers didn’t require any written paper to be submitted in advance, and anyway, most people had a slide-show prepared, heavily laden with photos, and a fair numbers with video segments.  During the conference, Shift, a co-sponsor invited the latter to be submitted to its site for post-conference sharing.]

I am the low-tech guy, who, because our technology is providing a problem for the moment, will lead today.  I have done mine as a slide show, but will not be projecting the slides, allowing me to vary my original plans without you, the audience, being any the wiser.

I am Chris Bradshaw.  I am from Ottawa, a bit of a pioneer in the walking-advocacy field, having started, with a friend in 1988, the first metro walking advocacy group in North America, Ottawalk, whose influence was spread around, resulting in many similar groups forming in the U.S., and later the formation of the U.S. National federation, America Walks.  In 2000, with a different friend, I started Vrtucar, Ottawa carsharing provider.  I sold out my interests in late 2006, to retire a second time (The first time was in 1995, when I retired from our municipal planning department as the public participation officer.)  I now am starting a campaign to promote what I will use my presentation to describe.

My wife and I lived car-free in a downtown Ottawa neighbourhood.  Our two daughters were brought up in a car-lite neighbourhood and didn’t feel the need to learn to drive until their late 20s.  And my wife’s mother, now 98, didn’t ever learn to drive, having spent most of those years living in suburban Long Island NY.

What I am doing now is an extension of two ideas that first came to me in 1977, the year my Dad died of lung cancer.  The first was to organized pedestrians – which some would say is like herding cats – to improve the walking environment.  I will not take time to describe some of what we did, although the session on pedestrian-friendly environments that I am moderating tomorrow might cover some of that ground.

The second idea was to form what I then called a car coop.  This was coincident with the second oil embargo, and although the coop couldn’t control the price of gasoline, it could address the huge chunk of car costs that are fixed.  My thinking then was simple: when I didn’t need to use a car, someone else could use it, thus allowing these fixed costs to be shared.  I had in mind just two families sharing a car, and I went door-to-door in my neighbourhood with a notice inviting a co-sharer to come forward.  I worked at it on and off for 20 years before I got one going, but it took less than 10 years before a group of people living in Berlin started what we now call carsharing, which I and my partner copied.

Even though my wife and I are no longer co-owners of Vrtucar, we still rely on the cars, living ½ block from a two-car station.  I consider that this makes us people who don’t live car-free, but rather car-lite.  We share the cars, and we pay our portion of the considerable fixed costs in the form of distance and time charges – plus a small monthly membership fee.

What I will cover today is how carsharing can be combined with the other forms of sharing of cars – taxi, ridesharing, car-rental, delivery services – into an integrated system that will replace the need for individuals to buy a car for their exclusive use – and what ensues with our current regime. What I will describe doesn’t exist anywhere right now.

For those of you who identify with the car-free vision, what I am suggesting today is that the road to car-free passes through car-lite.  Everyone car-free partisan has an idea of how to get to the city without cars.  Some focus on getting rid of the internal combustion engine, some want cars to be much smaller, some on improving transit or making all streets totally walking- and bike-friendly.  Others on being punitive, by charging for driving or owning a car enough that cars will be squeezed out.   [5:00]

I have chosen to focus on a new variable: why do we own our own cars?   What if we shared them instead?  Car sharing has taught us that our behaviour with cars changes when we don’t have an exclusive – and expensive – relationship to a particular car.  Our current regime forces us to either have a car, in which we have more ‘car’ than we require, or we don’t get one, in which we have too little.  Carsharing provides fractional access, allowing everyone to have, like goldilocks, just enough car, and to pay proportionally for that access.  This fractional access can be popularized by the phrase, “You Got Car!”  You own the car when you use it; and don’t own it when you don’t, which is essentially what Vrtucar’s original slogan was.  Today it is “The Only Good Car is a Shared Car.”

What can we learn from automobile history?  The car has been peddled as a consumer product.  The car is the only personal item that we are expected to own that is used only in public spaces.  The car is not a private item, even though advertisers sell privacy as one of the ‘goods’ we are buying.  Can we have privacy in a device with windows that is in a public space?  Further, the car, under our private-ownership regime, takes on the rights of its owner.  When you say no to cars in any space, like a neighbourhood, you are saying no to the cars’ owners being in that neighbourhood.  And that is the way the car is marketed.

Although the car moves around from place to place, it is not, like your billfold or cell phone, portable.  Rather it is mobile, but too heavy to be carried around by its owner; rather it provides its own system of movement, lacking only piloting (which the owner provides), and a road system (which the local government taxes all through property values to provide).  When you are in a car that is 20 to 40 times your weight, it is therefore transporting itself much more than transporting you.  Compare it with a bicycle which is one 1/5 to 1/10 the weight of its rider-owner.

When cars are individually owned, the car is chosen to match the owners needs over a period of several years, which is actually not easy to predict; when a car is shared, it is chosen to match the next trip only.  It is a trip-by-trip decision whether, first, to use a car at all, and second, if a car is required, which car is best to use: a small 4-banger?  A highway car?  A pick-up truck?  A van?  An SUV?  Or a sports car?

If 90% of the trips made in a car are single-person trips, and you had a shared-car regime, 90% of the shared fleet would be single-occupant vehicles, and the manufacturers would have to conform to the demands of the fleet owners providing the shared access.  Even the Smart Car, which is about to be available in the U.S., carries two passengers and a couple small suitcases, would be considered large by these standards.  And, by the way, a Smart car, I have just discovered, will carry inside behind the seats in a very small cargo area that sits above the engine, two folding bikes of the kind I own at home (this one, a Bike Friday Tikit, is a loaned bike, and doesn’t fold as small as my Brompton.)

And in our society’s efforts to give everyone this kind of car-access, we tend to be lax in the way we don’t set a very high bar in licensing drivers.  Not having a car is seen as a form of punishment, so we don’t even require knowledge of pedestrian and cycling safety as part of the tests, let alone any information imparted about environmental issues regarding car use and car ownership.

Today’s carsharing should be thought of as a kind of car-rental, with the following differences:

*    can be used for periods as short as ½ hour; although they have to be returned to same parking spot to stop the “meter” from running.

*    cars are located at stations much closer to the average member, where it is alone or with another one or two others, thanks to the reality of people being not willing to go as far to get a car for a short trip as for a long trip.

*    physical access is on an self-serve, honour system, with no staff to act as gatekeeper; usually an electronic device uniquely IDs the driver and also unlocks the car; and provides access to the ignition key stowed out-of-view inside.  Access is 24/7.

*    to ensure security and screening, membership is required, so that credentials – credit-worthiness and driving record – are checked only once at the beginning.   Most have a monthly or annual membership fee that amounts to abut 10% of the total user costs.

*    trips are booked mostly on-line requiring no staff intervention.

*    at the end of a trip, the user fills in form recording the odometer; an invoice is sent out by email at the end of each month for payment.  The invoice looks much like the monthly utility bill for gas, electricity or phone service.

*    the cars have their own dedicated parking spot off-street visible from the street, usually rented from a parking lot owner; sometimes, like here in Portland, the spot on on the street in a dedicated space, often a freebee.
*    User rates include gasoline and collision coverage.


My wife and I use a car approximately twice a month.

In 2005, Nelson Nygaard, of Oakland CA did a study of our industry for the Transportation Research Board.  They learned that car sharing serves people living in denser, mixed use areas where parking availability is low and parking costs high.  Also, the vehicle fleets are dominated by small four-cylinder cars, with little variety.  I tried to get my partner to add at least one cargo bike to our fleet for short distance carrying of larger items.  They are the kind of bike few people would use enough to warrant owning one in addition to a regular bike; so sharing is a natural.  We were stopped by questions of insurance.

Carsharing, the study found, has an environmental image: an advantage and disadvantage.

On the downside, the cars are not able to be cleaned between uses, which makes them look scruffier than car rentals, but actually cleaner than most privately owned cars, which tends to be partly filled by personal belongings needed ‘along the way.’  The condition of the car is the same as the previous user left it.  It is surprising, perhaps, that very few people find this cleanliness factor to be a problem.

In contrast to sharing a car with a spouse, carsharing in Canada serves 20 people, where it is used at the household’s only car; whereas in the U.S., it is shared by 35 people, where is it more often used as a second car.  U.S. companies also don’t charge an initial $300-500 deposit.  This shows that car sharing can make a big difference in a city’s car population, which is directly related to the amount of congestion on roads, and the amount parking – at 35% of all urban space, a real sprawl-exacerbating ;and use – that needs to be mandated.

One of the most common rebuttals I hear to my promotion of car sharing is “People love their cars.”  Actually, we are not sure that they do.  Most of the people who join carsharing reject that thesis; and believe that what is seen as ‘love’ is actually a dependency.  And that by practicing “location efficiency,” they can reduce the length of trips to that which can be walked, and that the ones that aren’t can be accommodated by bicycling, taxi, or transit.   What they totally reject is that there is any inherent “relationship” between a particular person and a particular car.

There is also a growing block of people who see how private car ownership comes with a “drive to drive.”  That they drive to get enough driving to amortize the heavy fixed costs – usually around 85% of all costs.  That they have to take their car with them in order to have any access to a car when the need arises.  That, by picking the car for the individual trip, it can be a lot smaller than today average car.  And that car-ownership provides “hyper-accessibility”: no walking necessary; no planning in advance.  How much would your car get used if it was parked no closer to your house or workplace than the nearest transit stop?

Let’s look now at what carsharing could become in the future.
First, carsharing providers now have a lot of electronics on the cars.  GPS allows the car’s real-time location to be known, and on-board GMS allows that location, the odometer reading, and the driver’s identity to be transmitted to the fleet owner’s office.  This allows the cars to function without a unique station location, and this would allow one-way trips.

With one-way trips, the user would not be paying for the clock to run during the time they are doing their ‘business,’ which is usually 2/3 of a typical trip.  This also deprives the fleet owner distance charges during this downtime.   This would further reduce parking costs for the user (where parking is charged for) or for the destination manager, where parking is free.   In case you are interested, each new car added to a city’s car ‘population’ requires the addition of six to eight additional parking spaces.  You have one at home, usually one at work, and then small shares of shares spaces at tens of thousands of other destinations you might want to visit.

This one-way function would involved booking each leg of the trip individually, allowing mixed-mode travel, and allowing for changes of plans that result from the visit.  The car you drive back home would usually be a different car. [15:00]

Or it could be just a seat in a car checked out to another member.  This would be made possible by a second innovation that could easily be added: putting ID readers on the other three doors, and upgrading the reservation system so that each seat could be tracked and rented out.  This could accommodate not only flexible ridesharing, but could allow any user who opts to share, a way to cost-sharing the trip without any worries about security, since the identity of all parties sharing the car at the same time will be recorded automatically.

All of this could be done by using the new features on cell phones to do the booking.  As you are heading to the exit doors of the shopping mall or arena, you pull out your phone, and push a button for reservations for any of the services it is registered with.  You select carsharing.  The phone allows for “immediate” or for a time and date to be entered from a stylized clock and calendar.  If immediate is pushed, it can skip asking where the trip will start, since the phone has GPS.  It then asked where the user wants to go, and a map would appear, which requires only a manipulate of the indicator with the arrow keys.  The service then responds with all available options, cars or seats in a car, with the details on each, asking for the user to confirm one of them.  The user would have to walk to a point of some density, where a driver will pass, after seeing the directions appear on the car’s display screen.

Another ‘hybrid’ could be with taxi service.  Most people drive, so there is no need to be driven, only for the car to be driven to the point there the user wants to start his trip.  The carsharing fleet owner only needs to have on-the-go drivers with electric folding bikes to get from a recently dropped-off car to a waiting user.   These people would also be valuable to cope with mal-distributions of cars that one-way travel could create – although the system could also provide for instant incentives for members willing to drive the car the ‘weak-demand’ direction. This could be thought of either as “valet carsharing’ or “U-drive taxis” and provide a price point between the two to cover the shuttling service.

This 2nd generation system would stop providing car-half-hour units of access to providing seat-minutes of access.

I call these various options and hybrids by the comprehensive term of MASC, or metered access to shared cars.  That can be counterposed with the regime that is now dominant, which I call OPOCO, or the one-person, one-car orientation.  By breaking down access to a much smaller unit than any of the MASC modes do today, we can reassemble it into wonderful new options.  This can, in rural towns which lack any of them today, due to a too-small market, allow for all to be provided, with the same vehicles, but time-shared by different users providing different services.  This could save their main streets, if WalMart hasn’t already nuked them.

One of the outcomes, if this were to replace OPOCO, is that there would not only be less driving and softer, kinder vehicles in our neighbourhoods, but less of a need for any person to drive, relying instead on these cars complementing large-vehicle buses and trains along the most dense corridors.  This, in turn, would allow us to set the bar higher to qualify as a driver.  Also, the MASC providers could become part of the system of scrutinizing drivers via the on-board electronics.  They could also collect the charges for congestion fees, parking, etc, without government installing a much more expensive system, e.g., bridge tolls, photo radar, etc.  Because bad driving behaviour would always be ‘caught,’ and the costs of detection so low, the ‘fines’ would be in the order of magnitude of library fines, eliminating the due-process costs of traffic court.  The MASC operators will turn in the proceeds like they do sales taxes.  Also, people banned from driving would be really banned.  This technology can also be used to implement bans of larger vehicles from certain zones of the cities. After all, if pedestrians, bicycles, and small vehicles are prohibited from freeways, why should larger, more intimidating ones be banned from places dominated by foot-powered travellers and slow, small vehicles, such as the neighbourhood utility vehicles that are appearing in golf-course communities (but which are dangerous when used on roads accommodating the larger vehicles).

When we make the shift – not by taking people’s cars away, but by just offering this MASC alternative – we will greatly reduce the drive to drive.  First, by removing the need to recover high fixed ownership costs; second by eliminating the need to have to take a particular car around everywhere in order to have access to any car; third, by allowing trips and cars to be matched and thus reducing the size of most cars; and fourth, by down-grading hyper-access to just reasonable access (only walking has, or should have, such access).

All transit operators promote the idea that it is OK to leave home without “it,” IT being the car.  But they don’t realize how nerve-racking that it.  The commuting trip is especially nerve-wracking.  Think of what could happen over 9-12 hours of being at a workplace: an unplanned or forgotten meeting some miles away; a school or day-care emergency involving one of the kids; a need to use the lunch hour to buy something one’s partner has phoned to remind was time-sensitive.  If you left home without “it,” you are as car-free as the fellows that lives under the freeway overpass downtown.

This is the scenario for those millions of people who take transit, few of whose jobs are in the downtown core anymore, and thus far from taxis or local services.  I foresee replacing much of the expensive-to-subsidize peak-hour commuter-oriented “rapid transit” with the MASC hybrid of carsharing and ridesharing.  A car will carry 4-7 people from an isolated suburban or exurban subdivision to an equally isolated worksite.  During the day, it is available to any of the workers at that site, as long as it is returned by the end of the day, for the return trip.  Then during evenings and weekends, it is available in its assigned neighbourhood for occasional trips.  I foresee that the vehicles would best be minivans, which would carry more people during ridesharing, and more gear and kids during the other hours, while serving most household’s second car. [22:00]

I hope that I have at least gotten you to see cars – and especially car-ownership – in an entirely new light.


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