» Paris offers up Autolib’, intent on duplicating the success of the Velib’ bike program. But is car sharing counter-productive?
In the United States, cars offered by companies like Zipcar have become a common sight in city centers and around university campuses. For people without access to an automobile, these shared vehicles can provide valuable extra mobility, especially for those who are less confident on bike or for people who need to get places not easily accessed by mass transit.
A growing conflict in Paris over the installation of a new sharing system, however, raises some important questions. Is car sharing necessary or even a good idea for dense cities where public transit is ubiquitous and where most goods can be bought within walking distance? What are the best modes for service implementation?
According to Zipcar, each shared vehicle takes fifteen to twenty personal vehicles off the road. This is made possible because of Zipcar’s low rates, starting at $8 hourly and $77 daily, along with a $50 annual subscription charge, collectively small enough to convince people to abandon their cars or to avoid buying them at all. The end result, at least theoretically: fewer cars on the road, more efficient use of each automobile, and fewer parking spaces needed. It has proven a cheaper alternative to taxis and car rentals and has been quickly adopted.
The problem, of course, is that many of the people using car sharing programs once weren’t using any cars at all, meaning that the easy access to vehicle actually means an increase in overall car use. Zipcar’s campaign earlier this year to convince New York City pedestrians that they could be getting around more quickly in an automobile suggests that the service’s best market is among people who are currently walking, biking, or taking transit to get to work. Should cities be encouraging car-share programs if the end result is to convince people who don’t use automobiles today to use them in the future?
On the other hand, it is true that car sharing vastly expands the mobility of people without cars, especially at nighttime, when congestion is less of a problem and when transit is less reliable. It allows carless urbanites to buy products at places like Ikea, often situated in places difficult to reach by transit. It opens up the idea of being car-free to college students and residents of small towns.
Just as Paris took bike sharing to the extreme with Velib’, it wants to take car sharing to the next level with Autolib’. With 1,000 stations located on the street or in underground parking garages in the city and in 30 surrounding communes, the service would offer 3,000 cars available throughout the day by 2011. Every vehicle would be electric so as to reduce pollution levels. At the cost of four to five euros each half hour, with a 15-20 euro subscription fee, the service would be more expensive than its North American cousin.
The goal? Liberating 20,000 parking spaces in the city and dramatically reducing the number of inhabitants who own private vehicles.
Unlike most existing programs like Zipcar, Autolib’ would let customers pick up cars and return them in different locations, just as Velib’ allows with bikes. This difference spins the concept of car sharing, making it imaginable for people to drive to work on a daily basis using the vehicles — not true with Zipcar, which forces you to return the car to where you picked it up, and within a short period of time, unless you want to pay a large fee.
Principally because of this difference, the French Green Party has come out strongly against what is a project of the Socialist Party, despite the fact that the two are politically in control of both the region and city in a coalition. According to the Greens, the 4 million euros it would cost to get the system up an running could be better used — especially since the environmental benefits of the project are questionable. They claim that while they are in favor of more traditional forms of car sharing, Autolib’ wouldn’t work efficiently because it would encourage more frequent use of motorized vehicles by people who currently take the subway or ride bikes. Instead of encouraging longer-distance trips, as does Zipcar, Autolib’ would provide inhabitants the ease of making short hops just about anywhere, minimizing the benefits of bike or train travel.
The fact that, according to a study supporting the project, more than 50% of the people interested in subscribing to Autolib’ currently don’t have a car suggests both that public transit has failed to fulfill every transit market and that car use may actually increase as a result of the system’s implementation. Autolib’ might be one solution — but further expanding transit offerings is also a possibility.
This argument rings true for Paris, where literally everyone in the city is within 500 meters of a Metro station and where 20,000 bikes are offered at the measly price of a 29-euro annual subscription. If you want to implement car sharing without stimulating more driving, it should prioritize longer-distance travel and infrequent trips; frequent trips should be covered by public transport and short hauls in the car should be taken in taxis.
In the U.S., car sharing might also have the negative effect of increasing car use in cities like New York and San Francisco, each of which have heavily transit-dependent populations that would likely be switching into automobiles, not out of them. It might make more sense to focus car sharing efforts in places that lack reinforced public transportation provisions — ideal if the goal of car sharing is to cut down on the number of people who own cars, rather than put people who currently don’t use them into them.