Car-sharing benefits may be exaggerated

BY David Booth. Nov 18 04:00 am

There is no Utopia. Dystopian dysfunction? Now, that’s more than just a theory.

Indeed, our friends to the south seem to be making a fine argument for what Wikipedia describes as “a society that is undesirable or frightening.” But, for as long as we flawed humans are in charge of things, Utopian perfection would seem to be a Platonism too far. But that hasn’t stopped soothsayers — Trump’s “Make America Great Again” being a perfect example — from imagining all manner of simplistic ideals as solutions.

The automotive version of Sir Thomas More’s ideal society has been, at least of late, either autonomous driving — promising fewer automotive fatalities as well as, for the purposes of this discussion, greatly reduced congestion — or car-sharing — aiming for reduced cost, reduced emissions and, again, greatly reduced inner-city congestion.

But a recent study by Ottawa’s Traffic Injury Research Foundation put paid to the idea that self-driving automobiles will axiomatically reduce traffic congestion, noting that fully one-third of Canadians who currently use public transportation would opt for a self-driving automobile given the choice. Combined with the very real possibility that the reduced aggravation of “driving” an autonomous car may encourage newly married millennials to migrate to the suburbs, self-driving automobiles may not be the automatic panacea that so many are projecting.

The same may also be true of car-sharing. Car-sharing — as opposed to Uber-like ride sharing — is, for lack of a better definition,

“participatory” car ownership. Essentially, a service provider — the big players in North America are Zipcar and Car2go — creates repositories of cars that can be rented by the hour and/or mile that members can automatically access. In theory, multiple people sharing the same car should reduce traffic congestion as well as fuel consumption and emissions.

Reality, as always, is a little more complicated. A recent study called Impacts of Car2go on Vehicle Ownership, Modal Shift, Vehicle Miles Travelled, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, makes some pretty startling claims suggesting that switching to Car2go reduces the average Vancouver household’s automotive-related greenhouse gas emissions by some 15 per cent. Even oil-sodden Calgarians, where the pickup reigns supreme, could pump out four per cent less tailpipe emissions if they were just willing to share. With car-sharing, the twin problems of congestion and pollution could be a thing of the past.

That’s the executive summary, at least. Dig deeper, however, and, by the study’s own reckoning, the benefits of car-sharing may be a little overblown. Firstly, there’s the little matter of how the reduction in miles driven as a result of car-sharing is determined. The survey, for instance, asked Car2go members if they sold their cars as the result of Car2go. It turns out, few did. In Calgary and Vancouver, for instance, just two per cent of members sold their personal vehicle.

To increase the perceived impact of the car-sharing phenomenon, the authors — Elliot Martin, of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, and the University of California, Berkeley’s Susan Shaheen — then estimated that Car2go “suppressed” many prospective owners from buying a car in the future as a result of membership. In Vancouver, this was estimated at 10 per cent of all Car2go members. Ditto for San Diego. In Calgary, it was nine per cent. And the study’s calculations very much depend on all these imaginary cars not being driven to account for a sizable portion of the benefits of car-sharing.

Unfortunately, this is a little like judging the success of New Year’s resolutions by counting a promissory “I will go to the gym” as equivalent to an actual “I went to the gym.” Elliot and Shaheen do discount these fancied reductions somewhat in their calculations, but a large part of the reduction in miles driven and GHGs reduced estimated by the study is still based on respondents’ good intentions. Of the 28,155 vehicles the study reported as taken off the road as a result of Car2go membership, fully 21,706 of these were estimations of sales suppressed; only 6,449 were actually sold.

More disturbing is the study’s findings that many Car2go members actually develop less virtuous road-sharing habits. While it can’t be argued that those who actually sold their cars are driving less, they are, by the study’s own findings, very much in the minority. The rest, it seems, are driving more. Across the board, in the five cities surveyed — Calgary and Vancouver as well as San Diego, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — many respondents admitted using public transportation less once they joined the car-sharing platform. In Calgary, for instance, 30 per cent of those surveyed said they used the bus less once they joined Car2go compared with just four per cent who said they used it more. Urban rail use was similarly diminished. And Car2go’s Smarts seem to have an especially dramatic effect on taxi use, 65 per cent of Vancouverites saying they used cabs less versus just three per cent using them more (the numbers for Calgary were equally dramatic, at 65 per cent and two per cent).

In other words, Car2go was often used instead of public transportation or a cab ride rather than replacing a personally owned car.

Indeed, the study reveals that 47 per cent of Vancouver members drove more once they joined Car2go compared with just 15 per cent of those who said they drove less. The numbers for Washington, D.C., are even worse, with four times as many members reporting they drove more than the number who said they drove less.

Another factor clouds the future of car-sharing: much as the supposed surge in popularity of electric cars has yet to materialize, there does not yet seem to be a car-sharing revolution in the making.

According to AutoRentalNews.com, after more than 10 years of growth, there were but 5,048 shared vehicles on Canadian roads and only 19,115 in the United States as of 2014. That’s compared with the roughly 25 million cars and trucks currently on Canadian roads and the 255 million on American highways.

That might be explained by an anecdotal finding in the Martin/Shaheen study, namely that the average car sold when joining Car2go was 14.4 years old.

While that may be good for the environment because the study says that cars averaging 23 to 25.4 miles per gallon were replaced by the Smart’s 36 mpg, 14-year-old beaters are typically the purview of the young (as well as anyone else with reduced means). And as Automotive News reports, “Millennials (may be) drawn to car-sharing services, but eventually, they buy.”

The propensity for car-sharing, so often attributed to the young, may yet prove illusory. Nonetheless, car-sharing may yet prove advantageous: reduced parking congestion would seem to be its foremost benefit.

But claims that participatory ownership is the cure-all to minimize inner-city congestion and dramatically reduce automotive tailpipe emissions seem somewhat exaggerated.

Traffic sustainability experts would appear to be the new Greeks bearing gifts.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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