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July 14, 2005

Sunny Share

Some more interesting vehicle news, this time on car sharing companies, which according to The New York Times are catching on a bit in Europe:

Studies suggest that one shared car replaces 4 to 10 private cars, as people sell their old vehicles...The result is a 30 to 45 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled for each new customer.

Now, 30 to 45 percent is a pretty sizeable decline in driving. But it shouldn't come as much of a surprise; as any economist would predict, converting a fixed cost (e.g., the cost of buying the car) to a variable cost (e.g., the cost of renting a shared car, which for Seattle Flexcars costs up to $9 per hour) makes people far more selective about how much they drive. And that probably saves car-sharers money overall: yes, they pay more for each trip, but they make fewer trips, and also avoid much of the expense of purchasing and maintaining a car for personal use.

A few other good things about car sharing. If the Times' figures for Europe are relevant to the US -- i.e., each shared car really replaces 4-10 personal cars -- then car sharing can reduce toxic emissions associated with car manufacturing anywhere from 75% to 90%. And that's a lot of toxics avoided: for typical cars, about 60% of the life-cycle toxics emissions from cars comes from making them, rather than driving them.

Also, since a typical shared car is driven more than a personal car, it makes more sense for companies like Flexcar to invest in super-efficient vehicles. For a car driven 5,000 miles a year, it may be hard to financially justify paying the extra money for a hybrid system; but for a car driven 20,000 miles a year, the finances pencil out a lot easier.

Which means that, between efficiency gains and reductions in driving, someone who is in a position to ditch a 20 mpg personal car for a 50 mpg shared hybrid Prius or Civic could reduce their personal gasoline consumption by, oh, about 75 percent. And they'd save money to boot. Quite a deal, no matter how you look at it.

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My car was wrecked in late 2003, and I decided to try going car-free instead of buying a replacement. I live in Seattle, and I don't have to commute to work, so I thought there was no reason I really needed to have a car. I got a bus pass and signed up for Flexcar; the experiment lasted for a year before I could no longer stand it. I did spend less money on transportation every month by using Flexcar, but I paid for every dollar saved in wasted time, extra stress, and missed opportunities. Overall, I did not come out ahead.

Converting the fixed monthly cost of car ownership into a variable hourly cost certainly did have a significant impact on the amount of driving I did. I had been an avid kayaker and backpacker, but during my car-free year I made it out into the wild only once. Every activity suddenly came with a price tag: $40 to paddle around the Arboretum, $50 to climb Mt. Si... even if I could take the bus instead of driving, that just converted a payment in dollars into a payment in hours, since the bus takes about three times longer to get anywhere than driving would.

Flexcar seems to be optimized for short, infrequent local errands, but the entire hourly premise makes such trips stressful and exhausting. There are penalties if you return the car late (which makes sense - it'd suck to be the next person in line, tapping your foot while you wait for the previous user to return the vehicle), so you have to spend your whole trip watching the clock. If things run longer than you expect, you may be able to extend the reservation, but only if someone else hasn't already reserved the next time-slot first. If traffic is heavier than usual, and your hour-and-a-half trip turns into two hours, then you're just out of luck.

Flexcar was better than nothing, but my feeling is that it is only an effective auto replacement for people who cannot afford car ownership at all, or who do almost no driving anyway and are willing to obey a rigid schedule when they do. I felt that transportation concerns ended up taking over my life; every trip had to start and end on a half-hour, and everything I wanted to do had to be carefully planned ahead of time. I tried to throw a beach barbecue party for my birthday last summer, and ended up spending most of the day working out how to get things from one place to the other and back again. I showed up at my own party two hours late, tired and stressed; then I had to cut the party off an hour early so I could get the car home in time for the next reservation!

I am even more attached to car ownership now than I was before my Flexcar experiences. My parking space alone costs as much as my monthly Flexcar bill did, and there's insurance, fuel, and maintenance on top of that, but I don't grudge a penny of it. The freedom I'm paying for is well worth the price.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Jul 16, 2005 6:43:47 PM

Thanks, Mars, for sharing your harrowing story about going carless in Seattle. I have been carless for about four years, most of that time in Seattle, and have had a very different experience, so I wanted to share my story. But I also work here at NEW, so maybe I'm a little biased...

Like Mars, I am fortunate to work within walking/biking/bussing distance of my home. When I was farther away, I resolved to bike the six miles into work as close to every day as I could. It became such a wonderful habit I always regretted it on the days I got a little lazy and opted for the bus instead. Exercise and commuting make a fabulous combination: a model of efficiency and good health! Now, I live about two miles from work and hoof it pretty much every day which, on the way home, is mostly uphill. (I find that when I go on long hikes I am already toned from my daily routine.)

When I need to run errands that do not require hauling anything, I rely on my hybrid bicycle (part road bike, part mountain bike) to get around town (or, whenever possible, I walk). This compels me to keep my errands simple and nearby. I have made a number of adjustments to my daily habits so that this is possible, but they were easy to make, and I have paid no opportunity cost worth mentioning. I also use my bicycle for weekend excursions to get to know Seattle and its environs. One memorable trip I took recently brought me around the north end of Lake Washington, into Redmond and through Bellevue. It was great exercise and it connected a bunch of places in a very concrete way (literally!) that were only dimly connected in my mental map beforehand.

There are times, of course, when a car is necessary. Like getting all your gear to Golden Gardens for the birthday bash; or escaping to the hills for some days among the few remaining Old Growth trees. For these occasions I have hit upon a mixed strategy. Often, I borrow a car from a friend, or I do things with a car-owning friend and we use her car. This is not cheating! This is called sharing, and it's good on every level. (Or so I tell myself). Naturally, it is encumbent upon me to do nice things for my friends, like pay for the fuel or bring a bottle of wine, or whatever.

Or, especially for longer excursions out into the countryside, I recommend renting a car. This is cheaper and less of a hassle than using Flexcar (I think). I have never used Flexcar myself; it just doesn't pencil out for me. It seems designed, as Mars points out, for people who will use a car fairly regularly, but mostly for short trips. Because I have managed to reduce that kind of car usage almost completely, it doesn't make much sense for me.

Now: I am childless, live with housemates from whom I can borrow a car in a pinch, and I live near where I work and shop. So, it's relatively easy for me to go without a car. But a lot of these things are choices I have made because I want to live without a car, and generally because I want to live a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle.

For those of you who can do the same, I recommend it highly. For me, it has been nothing but pure delight.

Posted by: Parke | Jul 18, 2005 9:52:41 AM

My wife and I have been Flexcar members almost from the very start. We had recently moved back from England where we did not own a car. We knew we wanted a car and decided to join Flexcar instead of purchasing a second car. Almost five years later, we are still a one-car family.

In many ways, we are the ideal car-sharing family: We don’t have children (cats don’t count, do they?), we live within a short walk of frequent and reliable transit service (South Bellevue Park & Ride), and we prefer to combine commuting and exercise (I bike to Mercer Island for grocieries – my wife combines walking and transit to get to work).

Here’s the funny thing: Despite being ideal car-sharing candidates, we don’t use Flexcar very much. I rarely use it and my wife typically uses it only when reimbursed by her employer for a work related trip. Since Flexcar exposes the true costs of driving, I would rather take the bus, ride my bike, or wait until our single car is available. This is mentally much easier for me than shelling our $45 to go hiking for 4 hours. (Gotta have that extra hour, “just in case”.)

Despite my experience with Flexcar, I still believe it is a valuable service. It has given us a “security blanket” to live without a second car, which has resulted in far less driving. Since we live in a low-density portion of Bellevue, it is unlikely that we will dispense with our primary car. (Which, I realize is the main reason we don’t use Flexcar very often)

However, being a one-car family in Bellevue is progress. Now, if Subaru would manufacture a plug-in hybrid wagon – then we’d be set ;)

Posted by: Matt Leber | Jul 18, 2005 11:15:36 AM

I have just purchased a vehicle after being carless for 2.5 years, mostly in Seattle. I mostly rode my bike, but I bussed too. I can do the bus occasionally, but not every day - blech.

What I hear Mars saying is he likes to get out and be in the wilderness a lot, whereas I don't hear Parke saying that.

I like to get out in the wilderness a lot. Being carless forces you to make your friends come by to pick you up to go somewhere, and you have no spontaneity to get away when you need to.

There are advantages, definitely, to having a vehicle. Our society doesn't make it hard enough to forego the car for transit a lot of the time, so we drive. Transit has its own stressors that make it easy to justify the car; transit is not hassle-free enough to make that justification harder to make.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Jul 18, 2005 4:54:44 PM

I live in Eugene where my transport modes are walking, biking, bussing, and taxiing. Fortunately this relatively small and compact city makes it easy for me to live without a car. If I had kids, though, I'm sure I'd consider getting a car.
I agree with Parke's suggestion of renting a car for longer excursions to add spontaneity to a carless life!

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Jul 18, 2005 7:12:19 PM

Oh, the joys of talking about living car free without being regarded as some kind of fanatic!

I've been car-free 11 years, 8 of them in Seattle. I have 2 kids (4 and 6) and think life is much much simpler and sweeter without a car. We looked into flexcar when it began because we thought the idea was cool, but realized it was optimized for folks who still live a car-necessary lifestyle, like Mars. For those of us who stopped "running errands" when we stopped driving, who are OK with infrequent trips out into nature, and who reorganized our lives so walking/biking/bussing gets us almost everywhere, then flexcar doesn't make sense. My little family walks or takes the bus for 90% of our trips. We go to places like Golden Gardens or hikes only when we have a car-owning friend with us, take a taxi if we're running late, and rent a car for weekend getaways.

Don't think kids require car ownership, Michelle. As long as you have some way to get to the hospital / doctor in a pinch (neighbor? taxi?)it is much easier to get around with little ones on the bus or walking. Babies prefer being in your arms, toddlers like squirming and looking out the window, kids love people-watching and knowing routes and having bus buddies. Assuming you live in a walkable neighborhood, which it sounds like you do. I reserve the right to change my mind when the kids have their own schedule demands, but for now I wouldn't trade this for anything.

Posted by: cary | Jul 18, 2005 9:57:53 PM