Monday, November 7, 2011

CarSharing: A 1% solution (And why it is a critical 1%)

The learning process has been long and painful. But it is almost 2012, 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 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 bouquet of new mobility services.

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 transportation 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 carsharing 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 transportation option in that place (which unfortunately to now in most places is not the case). 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 transportation option obliges you to think about your trip before actually taking it. It is no longer a matter of just running down the stairs, jumping into our 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, 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 c operations achieve this, here is the next quasi-invisible contribution of our so-called 1% solution.

On top of this, since carshare operations tend to be the most part IT oriented in a number of ways, this means that carsharers on average tend to be more oriented to making daily use of their IT equipment -- though at this point this is a total unscientific personal guess on my part -- which suggests to me 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 contact for car or other trips. This might mean teleshopping, telemedicine, telework, televisiting, or other tele-options, all of which often ends up each time with one less car on the road. One transaction, 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.

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Author's note:
This is an informal series of statements, however they are based on extensive observation with carsharing and new mobility projects in many places over more than a decade. A careful perusal of the literature will support all or at least most of what is summarized above, but for now my task is simply to plant the seed and invite you to take this your own step further.

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