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The Future of Carsharing
Erica Barnett, 14 Aug 07

678552466_388fa18fe3.jpgFull disclosure: I am a huge carsharing partisan. For over a year I've been a member of Flexcar, the carsharing program in my area, and I am an almost unqualified fan. Sure, I've had to endure inconveniences: standing in the cold Seattle drizzle while waiting for the driver who had the car before me to show up; finding that an SUV has taken the spot clearly marked "CARSHARING VEHICLES ONLY," forcing me to drive around in search of parking. But carsharing has also provided me with tremendous benefits: the mobility to go into the mountains for a day trip (I live in a place where this is impossible by mass transit) without doing serious damage to the environment; the carrying capacity to go on occasional trips to the garden-supply or furniture store and bring back a full load of plants, hardware, or flat-pack furniture; the knowledge that I have a fleet of a dozen or so different types of vehicles to choose from, including numerous hybrids and a convertible Mini.

My only real complaint about carsharing is that it has one major, built-in, self-limiting inefficiency: because cars must be returned to the spot where you pick them up, you can't take one-way trips. That means that even if what I really want to do is drive from my house to the store and to a friend's party, from which I'll get a ride or return by bus, I'm forced to drive to the party and drive home. (This also automatically makes me the designated driver.)

What's the solution to this conundrum? Actually, it's intuitive: supply, supply, supply. The more cars there are, the easier they are to access and use. So it stands to reason that when the ratio of cars to drivers reaches a certain saturation point, it will become possible to take a car from one carsharing spot and return it to another. Perhaps this will mean moving, at least initially, toward a model in which individual spots around a city are centralized into a smaller number of carsharing stations of half a dozen or more cars each. (In Seattle, these are called "pods.") Drivers could take whatever car is available, with specific cars such as trucks or convertibles available on a more limited basis for a premium.

Neither of the two largest carsharing companies in the U.S., FlexCar and ZipCar, currently offer one-way trips. However, my prediction is that as the popularity of carsharing increases and the companies' fleets grow larger, one-way trips are inevitable. And it's likely that this will only make carsharing more appealing: since 2000, Berlin's GreenWheels has allowed one-way driving, resulting in a 23 percent increase in trips.

Cities could take proactive steps to make one-way come sooner. Most carsharing programs are public-private partnerships already. A simple carbon tax on vehicle emissions -- charged either per ton of emissions produced, or as a flat motor-vehicle tax when drivers renews their registration -- could feed into a grant program for carsharing expansion, which would in time fund the purchase of enough cars to make one-way driving viable. New cars and one-way possibilities would, in turn, increase the visibility and popularity of carsharing, helping to make it a viable alternative for those who currently consider it an impractical luxury.

Image: keithpr/flickr

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The ZipCar survey that I took recently asked if I was interested in one-way use, so they are definitely already looking into it. I'm in DC if that matters.

Posted by: Chris L. on 14 Aug 07

I know the intersection in the picture: SW 6th and Mill in Portland... Usually a FlexCar Honda Element is parked there.

Posted by: jon on 15 Aug 07

How does one way car sharing work? If you drive from a central point to somebody's house in the burbs, how does the next driver find the car?

Posted by: Robert Dillon on 15 Aug 07

One ways look nice but are not great in practice. I was not aware any car club operator did it and am surprised you refer to Greenwheels doing it since 2000 as they did not start in Germany until 2004 or so.
The Berlin bicycle scheme I understand uses three vans to reposition the imbalance in one way bicycles.
The Paris bicycle scheme is used more for downhill trips than the uphill ones. Now imagine what needs to be done to offset these imbalances with cars. There is not the natural balance one imagines.
Lets become members of car clubs because they make sense - not try to push add-ons which will simply add to traffic.

Posted by: Dirk on 16 Aug 07

One way carsharing between stations (major parking garages) has been offered by the Honda DIRACC carsharing program in Singapore for several years [they also offer "instant (no start time) open ended (no end time) reservations]. To offer such options requires relatively "mature" system - lots of members and cars and a very creative contract with the parking garages. Until carsharing is quite a bit larger than it is now, In most cases one-way trips could not be used by commuters as the

That said, one way carsharing between stations (major parking garages) has been offered by the Honda DIRACC carsharing program in Singapore for several years [they also offer "instant (no start time) open ended (no end time) reservations]. In one German city Cambio also tested with one-way trips several years ago. An experiment with one-way involved StattAuto members in Berlin many years ago and was written up in Bodo Schwieger's book International Developments Towards Improved Car-Sharing Services

Frankly, I believe the instant/open ended (no reservation) option would have much more greater appeal to most current and potential carsharing members.

Posted by: Dave Brook on 16 Aug 07



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