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Sell Your Car, Stay Sane

Car sharing works. Hop in, Harper!

By Murray Dobbin 12 Dec 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Maybe you don't need one.

What can be done about the craziness experienced daily on the streets of Canada's major cities? The car, whose greatest selling point is supposed to be convenience, is actually becoming less and less convenient as gridlock frays our nerves and lengthens our commute times.

However, going without a private automobile in most of Canada's major cities can seem a daunting proposition. If all cities improved their public transit systems to Toronto's standard (even this is slipping), they might be able to achieve its low level of car ownership. That is not going to happen any time soon, though, with the bone-headed policies pursued by the Harper government (about which more later).

One way individuals can help things along is to join a car-sharing network. Car sharing is an organized system that allows individuals to give up their privately owned cars by providing them with access to vehicles in their neighbourhood. From the user's perspective, it is a remarkably simple process, with instructions as simple as: "You book a car, you go to the car, you drive around, you bring it back."

Combined with walking, biking, public transit and the occasional car rental, car sharing gives many city dwellers a feasible option to private car ownership. Hourly fees and distance charges mean car sharing does not work for daily commutes and long distance trips. But for a night on the town, grocery shopping, picking up home furnishings -- the kind of trips that are a challenge without a car -- car sharing works extremely well.

Less cost, less hassle

Susan Shaheen, a University of California transportation expert, did her doctorate on car sharing. In an interview with The Tyee, she gave what might seem a surprising explanation of car sharing's appeal: that it is actually less of a hassle than owning a car.

"From an individual's perspective, car sharing can provide the flexibility and reliability of car ownership without the personal hassles involved in insuring and maintaining a car," said Shaheen. Interviewing car-sharing members, she heard many say, "It is the right thing to do for the planet," or, "Taking one more car off the road makes me feel good."

Although Shaheen cautions that car sharing is still very much a niche market, the environmental potential is real: "We see about six to 10 cars being taken off the road for every car-sharing car. It's a much more efficient way of managing land use, since privately owned cars just sit parked between 95 and 98 per cent of the time. There is an average reduction of 44 per cent in kilometres travelled by car for car-sharing users, which means a substantial reduction in carbon dioxide emissions."

Shaheen explained that the reductions in distances travelled by car are achieved because the car sharing's pricing system encourages behavioural changes. When people are paying per trip rather than having the fixed costs associated with ownership, they make more conscious decisions about which mode of transport fits with a particular trip -- whether it is public transit, biking, walking or using a vehicle from the car-sharing network.

Sharing cars: a brief history

Car sharing began in Europe in the mid-1980s. One of the earliest tries in North America, and now one of the most successful, is Vancouver's Co-operative Auto Network. Started in 1997, CAN's membership has grown to 3,800, and the network will have 200 vehicles in its fleet by January 2008. Those members collectively got rid of 1,900 cars from Vancouver streets. Compare that to buying even 1,900 Priuses. The amount of urban space lost to parking is also reduced through an arrangement with the City of Vancouver that allows fewer parking spaces per residential unit for buildings participating in the co-op.

What members get is access to a variety of vehicles in their neighbourhoods -- compact cars, pickup trucks, minivans -- that they never have to worry about taking into the shop, or getting broken into.

Better vehicle maintenance is one of the added environmental benefits of car sharing.

And car sharing is incredibly cheap, a tiny fraction of the estimated $9,000 to $11,000 it costs each year to own a car. Last year, it cost me an average of $60 a month -- and rarely was there not a car available if I booked a day ahead for one of the six cars located within four blocks of where I live.

Backwards business model?

Tracey Axelsson, CAN's lone employee in its infancy, told The Tyee that the co-op is working to manage an annual growth rate of 35 per cent, now has a staff of 18, and has assisted in efforts to spread car-sharing to China. Axelsson said that as a co-op, CAN is able to base its decisions on advancing the public interest. So car location decisions are made with the goal of increasing convenience to members, rather than what will be easiest for the organization to administer. The rates charged members are intended to serve social justice goals, to make the co-op as affordable as possible to low income members.

CAN is a funny kind of business that actually seeks to see its services used to a minimum as part of an effort to reduce car usage. On its website, CAN "encourages members to use alternative transportation as much as possible (walk, cycle, take transit) and to use cars as a last resort."

Hop in, Harper!

What a contrast to the message we are getting from the Harper government, which prefers providing tax cuts rather than better public transit.

Recently Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gave away $60 billion in tax revenue. When just a short time later Canada's mayors asked for $22.8 billion for the transit funding necessary to keep up with public demand, Flaherty turned them down flat and accused them of whining. (Flaherty's latest bright idea is to target even more tax cuts on those who need them the least, the super-rich.)

Meanwhile, the estimated deaths from air pollution in Canada are already 5,000 per year. The greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are growing faster than those from any other sector. The roads, parking lots and scrap yards needed to service private automobiles keep swallowing more and more green space and agricultural land -- a problem that no amount of hybrid-car buying can fix.

The success of Vancouver's Co-operative Auto Network shows people are willing to experiment with environmentally friendly transportation options. But a strong public transit system is a key factor in the potential success of car sharing, and until the federal government wakes up and commits the billions needed, we'll continue to choke on our own exhaust while we contribute to global warming.

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