Sharing the wheels, caring for the globe


The worship of the great god car must, like an old bomb, eventually grind to a halt. A drive on the freeway out beyond Melbourne and repeated on all the great outlets of our sprawling cities around 8.30 on a weekday morning reveals kilometre after kilometre of cars, bumper to bumper in three lanes, crawling into town. In the afternoon the dreary process is reversed. Reducing the number of cars on our roads is one answer to the Great Australian Crawl, and decades after car sharing was taken up in Europe, the idea is growing here.

The first Australian car share firm to open charges up to $360 a year, plus a $4 hourly rate, or $70 daily, as well as a kilometre rate, for the use of a car that is time-shared with other subscribers. Members book a car parked in a nearby designated space and return it there. Cars can be used for a few hours, days or even months. This Sydney firm, Newtown CarShare, says it has had more than 2500 bookings in fifteen months. Insurance is fully covered and there is an ‘excess’ the driver pays if at fault in a crash. A typical car sharer is a professional person aged in the mid-forties who lives in the inner city, uses public transport to and from work and wants a fairly simple life.

To sign up this person, GoGet, an offspring of Newtown CarShare, launches its first car in Melbourne on 18 November. Another Melbourne group, the Future Lifestyle Organisation, whose members are aged under thirty, plans a car sharing company aimed at city residents and is trying to raise money to buy fifteen cars.

Car sharing is said to have been started by clever companies such as Volkswagen back in the eighties. Others such as Honda and Toyota took it up. Now it is embraced by both businesses and idealistic non-profit groups and there are an estimated 400 000 car sharers in thirty-five countries.

Most car shares work on twenty four-hour phone and Internet reservation systems and cars are parked throughout a metropolitan area for pickup and drop-off. The fees may be hourly and/or mileage, with the service paying for petrol, servicing and insurance. The Sydney firm says that a car is available ninety five per cent of the time and most people book three to four hours ahead. Sharing also suits people carrying lots of goods. In Sydney you can share a ute, which is in a lot of demand, and in Melbourne, GoGet’s second car will be a new Toyota Corolla station wagon.

‘Running a small car costs between $8000 to $10,000 a year,’ says Bruce Jeffreys, Director of Newtown CarShare, who has worked with the NSW Government’s Sustainability Unit in the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources. `That figure is from the RACV. Car sharing saves between $3000 and $9000 a year, with members spending between $600 and $1800 each, annually. The average private car spends most of the time parked, while ten to twenty people can use a shared car.’

Conservationists certainly recognise their value. Newtown CarShare won two of the 2004 Metro Pride Awards categories, taking the Overall Metro Pride Award Community Category and the Landcom Sustainable Communities Award. Shared cars help get people out of older, inefficient vehicles and into a car that is new, well-maintained, safer and less polluting. Sharing also helps public transport to compete with the car, often linking with public transport.

In the US, Flexcar, which operates in more than twenty cities, has seen its membership grow to 22 000, from 16 000 a year ago. Zipcar, which operates in Boston and elsewhere, says business is up ninety percent in a year, to about 25 000 participants. Cities such as Washington, Chicago and Seattle have linked the service with their public transport systems. Chicago’s nonprofit Centre for Neighborhood Technology runs an I-GO car-sharing program that offers gas-electric hybrid cars for short trips from ten locations. The Chicago Transit Authority is a partner in this program.

In Los Angeles, where public transport is lacking and for more than a century there have been faithful followers of Henry Ford’s belief in the need for car ownership, establishing car share is more of a battle. The Los Angeles Times recently reported as news a twenty eight-year-old medical consultant who sold his car. Instead he uses light rail for nearly all his local travel and on days when he needs a car, books from Zipcar. But the company recently cut its fleet from fifty to fifteen and reduced the number of locations to about six, keeping those near public transport hubs. And the fifteen cars are being used only once a day on average.

A nonprofit firm in San Francisco, City CarShare, runs a service that costs as little as $2 an hour for off-peak usage, with 3 500 members sharing seventy five cars, with twenty five more to be added by the end of the year. Since joining, thirty per cent of City CarShare households there have sold one or more of their privately owned cars.

Research by the University of California at Berkeley, described as the first independent, academic study of car-sharing, showed that sixty seven per cent of sharers decided not to buy another car. Their car use dropped forty seven per cent, while their use of public transport, walking and bicycling increased.

Eighty-five per cent of members use the service at least once a month and thirty per cent once a week or more. Most trips are made outside of peak hour. The biggest use of City Carshare is shopping (29 per cent of trips) followed by personal business (19.2 per cent), recreation (12.5 per cent), travel to work (10.7 per cent), social (8.3 per cent), medical (5.6 per cent), eating out (4.7 per cent) and other (9.5 per cent).

In Australia the benefits of car sharing will be pitched at groups such as property developers, who will be pleased to learn that they can do without having to provide car parking on awkward sites. A sharing guru, Dr Susan A. Shaheen from the University of California, is coming to talk at seminars in Sydney and Melbourne later this month. She says 38 000 people take part in car-sharing in the US.

Fittingly, she comes from Berkeley, which is the first American city to share a dedicated fleet of municipal cars with private citizens. Under a partnership between Berkeley and City CarShare, the largest non-profit car-sharing organisation in the US, the city decided four months ago to retire fifteen of its fleet and replace them with five hybrid cars operated by City CarShare.

Council staff may use the five cars in business hours on weekdays, but the rest of the time members of City CarShare can book and drive them. Savings of about $250 000 in direct costs are expected during the first three years of the program, mostly in vehicle costs, and an additional $150 000 in indirect savings, including reduced insurance payouts and staff time not spent on reserving and maintaining cars.

In Sydney, Marrickville and Leichardt Councils support Newtown CarShare and the City of Sydney voted this week to reserve ten parking spots for car-share vehicles for a six-months trial period.The spots would be for car-sharing by limited membership of residents and business of the City of Sydney and have environmentally friendly cars, such as LPG, CNG, electric or hybrid vehicles. Darebin Council, in Melbourne’s north, is now backing GoGet with sites and promotion. Maybe it’s time to get your council going on this.

Kevin Childs uses Melbourne public transport, writes and is a media consultant.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.