Car sharing: the barely hidden bikey agenda

Bikeportland.org reported Monday that bill 3149 has passed the Oregon house and looks likely to pass in the senate. “The bill would allow a car owner to rent out their car to friends or neighbors through a car-sharing service without fear of increased insurance rates or loss of policy.” This isn’t just neighbors tossing the truck keys over the fence for the occasional brick haul in exchange for beer or flowers. This is peer to peer car-sharing companies being able soon to roll out smart booking, billing, access and security systems for the 92% of cars that nobody happens to be actually using right now, as long as their owners are interested in letting them out. For money. Why wouldn’t they be?

Need a car? Pull out your internet device in a couple of years, and instead of Zipcar’s 1-2 choices today, maybe you’ll get 10 choices within a 5-minute walk or 1-minute bike hop. All classes of vehicle. Different rates and availability periods. Veggie-diesel schoolbus? Minivan? Convertible? Hypothetically insured electric-assist cargo bike? Select. Walk. Drive. There will come a time, or tipping point, when all but a few exceptional households realize that owning a car in cities like Portland, developed before they became “necessary,” is simply a waste. Or at least owning without sharing, when the opportunity costs of not doing so, together with fuel well north of $5/gallon, will be compelling. And then there will be 20 choices.

And then perhaps, finally, the 20th-century automotive bubble will pop. Look down any neighborhood street in Portland. What I see are linear parking lots, public-subsidized storage facilities for idle private cars — massive overcapacity — whose ownership and operation represents an ongoing massive extraction of local wealth. With available motor vehicles in oversupply city-wide, their numbers will drop dramatically to meet something closer to real demand as bike numbers continue to climb. (This assumes the value of owning a car is entirely utilitarian, and that people are rational, which isn’t the case. But really, among young people, are cars cool? Time’s on our side, and accelerating.) In North American cities where company-owned car sharing has been implemented, every shared car has already been shown to replace 6-23 unshared ones.

Falling and being pushed

Now, if car owners are letting their vehicles out, deriving income, should the city still permit them to be stored free in the public right of way, while simultaneously subsidizing yet more parking through mandatory spots in building codes? Recover the high cost of free parking! Or perhaps it could swing both ways in the form of a city incentive to share vehicles: shouldn’t only shared vehicles be permitted to park free? Maybe 2-3 free spots per 10 households: remember 92% are idle now. After all, the local economy stands to benefit by driving cars off the streets altogether even more than from parking fees, by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Not just streets: deny permits to tear up curbs, transect sidewalks, lawns and gardens to install driveways and garages where it hasn’t already happened on historical preservation grounds.

However it rolls, a huge reduction in the number of cars in the city will restore its neighborhood streets to something like their designed, mostly pre-1920s character. Healthful, quiet, safe, social. More people, fewer machines: streets as public space for child’s play, walking, biking, and the local efficient movement of freight from burgeoning rail and crumbling highway terminals. Moving a couple kids or sacks of groceries in 2-ton motorcages that can do 120mph? Not so much!

If it’s not a moot point by then, the question of where to put separate bicycle infrastructure becomes less vexing: it’s already there, where the cars used to be! Make the bike boulevard network of neighborhood streets effectively car-free or “local access only” by making them one-way for cars, with the direction changing every block. You’re exempt if you have sirens or some other urgent exceptional need.

Portland will feel like Sunday Parkways 24-7-365, except with most everybody actually going someplace, and without the abnormal police presence making it feel like an illegal dream. In 2030, revive Sunday Parkways as an iro-nostalgic festival where motorists are encouraged to drive around at giddy lethal speeds up to 25mph in a predefined circuit of child-free streets, with heavy bicycle police escort, ending in the giant weedy parking lots at the edge of the Urban Growth Boundary, where lifestyle motorists and collectors store their excess vehicular tonnage at lower than the urban rate. Next to the recycling yards.

With far fewer cars than households, what will happen if suddenly for some reason everybody needs to drive at once? The interstate highway system, after all, was conceived and promoted alongside personal bomb shelters as a response to the threat of nuclear attack from the communists. “The great dangers are jam-ups and bottlenecks.” The H-bombs would be bad enough, but who wants to get nuked while fleeing at anything less than 90mph? I stopped living in that century in about 1979; some are slower to let it go. We’ll all manage.

Car sharing in my life

My household has never owned a car — never saw how that wouldn’t result in less bike riding? — but my driver’s license hasn’t lapsed in the 30 years since I first got one. Martina my wife and Clever partner has never actually driven at all. While bikes were plenty for us in the first 15 years of our togetherness in Frankfurt, Annapolis, Boston, Brooklyn, and San Francisco, when we got pregnant 9 years ago, we signed up for San Francisco’s then-new City Carshare, “just in case” this car-free thing turned out to be as exotic-in-a-bad-way as most of our peers seemed to think. We used it for the first time not on the way to the hospital to give birth, but taking our baby home nearly a week later, when the hospital refused to release our own child to us without us presenting an approved car seat. He escaped with his foreskin, but not without incantations of danger and safety in mandatory induction to the national religion that kills more children than anything else. Seven years later, these guys did it right.

We’ve used a shared car in conjunction with a Brompton folding bike 3-4 times a year ever since, and sometimes a traditional rental for longer trips out of town. Always a luxury, never a necessity. Our boy has traveled by bike hundreds of times farther by bike — on our bikes — than any other mode save air. He could patch a flat before he could fasten a seat belt. He knows that we can use a car any time we want, but that we choose bikes. Thanks to car sharing, he knows there’s no point in owning one.

By never owning a car, by AAA cost estimates, we’ve saved a cumulative $240,000 or so since learning to drive. Priceless are the intangible benefits of eschewing habitual car use. But still, that’s a lot of bikes, with plenty left over to help us climb out of our $40K liberal arts student loan debts, and even buy a house, and then some. And so, we quit our day jobs and opened a bike shop that doesn’t carry sporting goods or car racks, to share the good news that bikes are enough in the city, even for families, almost always. For everything else, there’s car sharing.

Our business partners Dean and Rachel, with 4 children, own 1 car because Zipcar doesn’t have nearby choices that seat 6 with restraints, and even our biggest bikes aren’t quite up to the task of transporting them all together comfortably in any season, anywhere in town or beyond. O, they’ve tried! Their car sits mostly idle. They’ve already signed up to share it as soon as a local sharing service gets rolling.

7 thoughts on “Car sharing: the barely hidden bikey agenda”

  • Tim K

    Great post, Todd. I'm even feeling a little inspired about the car-less cityscape of the future (and that's a pretty solid accomplishment these days). So Thanks!

    From up here in Seattle, it's exciting to see private carshare happening in Oregon -- optimistically that means in 5-7years we can expect something similar (with more red-tape and sales tax) in Washington. Keep us posted on how it goes!

  • Todd Edelman

    Right on! You put the fest in manifesto!

    + I hope people choose to have families with five total members including any large dogs.
    + Almost all normal carshare - Autocar in Toronto is one exception - does not officially allow dogs outside of crates. This is very inconvenient (of course people cheat). P2P carshare should theoretically give more possibilities for this, as people who have dogs will be tolerant of others with dogs to use their vehicles.
    + A friend and public transport expert who worked a lot in Switzerland and is very familiar with current carshare champion Mobility Carsharing as well as earlier experiments is skeptical about P2P. He said that it will encourage some to get new cars as others will pay for them. I am not totally convinced... in any case there will need to be good studies in a couple of years to help determine the full effects.

  • David Chase

    I can't quite see how the no-increase-in-insurance is going to work. If cars are currently 92% idle, and through car sharing we cut that to 50% idle (i.e, 16% of the cars that we have now, assuming no reduction in car trips for the moment), you'll have just as many trips, and just as many accidents, with 1/6th the cars. If the insurance is tied to the car, not the driver, that gives you a 6x increase in the per-car accident rate -- insurance rates must go up.

    The bill could dance around this in several ways -- insuring per-driver instead of per-car, or funding insurance through gas tax, or making it strictly per-mile (which charges more for renting, but only to the extent that the car was used, and it could be built in to the rental cost).

    I think this is a great idea, but it has some devilish details.

  • albert

    Ouch, $4 per gallon when I ride past the gas station 2 blocks from my apartment! This hype about peer to peer-p2p car sharing is different than Zipcar which spends over 70% of their budget on maintaining cars. P2p lets you rent all sorts of cars usually within walking distance. I read about this new p2p company called JustShareIt outta of San francisco who will be heading to Oregon once the bill passes. They also let you rent boats, snowmobiles & pickup trucks (easier for errands when needing xtra speace).

    Like Ebay, JustShareIt creates online communities where owners & borrowers can find that pet friendly car reducing hassles.Best part is JustShareIt provides the insurance during the p2p rental in case of damage. Being your neighbor's or some1 else's car, most people won't treat it like a rental car. I signed up as it helps me cut down the expense of needing a 2nd car that we'll hardly use.

  • SteveG

    David Chase-

    You're right. More usage = higher chance of accidents = higher premiums. However, that doesn't mean the car owner pays.

    With Getaround.com, at least, the insurance in quite simple. There's a "by the mile" insurance policy that replaces the car owner's policy when a non-owner (i.e. a borrower) is using the vehicle. This shifts the potential liability away from the owner's insurance, and onto Getaround's policy. The cost is covered by Getaround, and they recover it in the cut they take off the top of every rental fee.

  • Todd (admin)

    check this if you liked the post: http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-03-25/force-multipliers

  • Rick

    This paradigm is commonly used with small to medium yachts, which are often used only once a month or so. owners join co-ops that rent boats not scheduled to be used by the owner that day or weekend, and split the take. It's an established business model in the sailing world.

    I wouldn't have got much sailing done in my day without it, since I couldn't afford a boat. A friend of mine belonged to one such co-op as a renter.

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