» An all-electric, point-to-point system could revolutionize how we think about the automobile and significantly reduce the need for private cars in our cities.
American urbanites have already become quite familiar with the concept of car sharing through the rapid expansion of companies like ZipCar and I-Go; the ability to rent a car at a reasonable price at any time from a location within walking distance of home or work has dramatically reduced the need for at least some people to own private vehicles, since it covers the gap in service not provided by transit: Trips that are out-of-the-way, that require moving heavy goods, or that occur at inconvenient times. This is great for cities and for people, since not only does it reduce the need for parking, but it reduces vehicle capital expenses for everyone, since the cost of purchasing the car is effectively shared among many households, not just one.
But car sharing has always been limited in one significant way: It forces users to return cars to the place where they found them. This makes it impossible to use car sharing for one-way trips and makes it difficult to use a shared car for trips that last more than a few hours — because it simply becomes too expensive. And the environmental credentials of existing systems are limited: They mostly rely on the same old gas and diesel-powered cars regular automobile users own.
In several cities around the world, however, a new form of car sharing is being developed that offers users both one-way trips and electric vehicle fleets. Together, these advances could increase the number of people choosing to abandon their private vehicles in favor of shared cars.
Paris took the most significant — and most visible — step forward this week with the introduction of its new Autolib’ service, modeled after its highly popular Velib’ bike sharing system. A fleet of dedicated electric cars (called “Bluecars”), manufactured by French company Bolloré and featuring two doors, four seats, and a GPS system, have been distributed across the city; by June next year, there will be 1,740 such vehicles spread across Paris and 45 suburban cities and towns (eventually, 3,000 vehicles are planned). Cars will have the ability to travel up to 250 km on one four-hour charge.
Unlike most other car sharing networks, but like Velib’, Autolib’ vehicles will have to be parked in dedicated parking spaces that feature electric plug-ins. In other words, while the system will allow travel from one point to another, at each end people will have to find a specific station where charging is possible, since users will be required to plug the cars back in once they arrive. There will be 1,120 stations by next year (up from 33 currently), with 508 planned in the city itself. Some of these locations will feature distinctive booths (such as the one pictured above) that allow people to scan in their IDs, driver licenses, and credit cards in order to get started using the network.
Users will be charged higher annual fees (about €140/year) than do services like ZipCar, but will be compensated with relatively lower hourly fees, which will run about €10/hour.
The City of Paris has contributed the funds to install these stations, with Bolloré covering the costs of the cars. The service is expected to be operationally profitable over the medium-term; risks are being covered by Bolloré.
Paris is not the first to pioneer point-to-point car share at a large scale, though it is the first to do so with a fully electric fleet.* Car2Go, a subsidiary of car manufacturer Daimler, has since 2008 provided such a car sharing option first in Ulm and then in Austin, Hamburg, and now Vancouver with two-seater Smart Cars, which Daimler makes. The expansion of Car2Go suggests that the point-to-point model is economically profitable and that people appreciate the concept.
Unlike in Paris, where expensive installation of electric charging devices and station street furniture has been part of the process, Car2Go allows users to leave cars in any parking spot in the city, not a problem since users can simply fill up the cars at gas stations.**
Car2Go, however, plans a move into electric vehicles, beginning with a 300-vehicle fleet in San Diego at the end of this year. Though Car2Go will not be installing charging stations there itself, another company, Blink EV, will be plugging 1,000 stations in for any users with electric vehicles (Autolib’ will allow people with private electric cars to charge in Autolib’ spaces as well, as long as they’re signed up for the service). Customers using Car2Go there will not be required to plug the cars in (they will have to be charged every two days or so), which leads to questions about who will do so. More maintenance staff to do such work will ultimately mean higher prices for the customer.
For both systems, important questions need to be answered: How can we prevent people from using these networks for one-way trips to work, instead of the public transportation system? Will cars become physically concentrated in some areas of the city and have to be redistributed, as are the bikes in most bike sharing schemes?
The pricing system in Paris will likely disuade people from using the cars to get to work — unlike with bike sharing, which generally has no fee for members in the first half hour of use, Autolib’ requires payment for any use. Thus cheaper transit will remain the most appealing option for people in cities with good rail and bus networks. In less well-served markets, like Austin, one can imagine more people who can afford it using this type of car share for daily commutes.
What is clear is that the networks will have to be constantly monitored to ensure that everyone has easy access to vehicles at any location and at any time. After all, the primary users are people who would have taken their own cars or hailed a taxi otherwise. People are paying significant sums to become members (certainly more than they are for most bike share programs), so they need to be able to rely on the network.
One thing these systems could do is make way for more public space. Paris expects each Autolib’ vehicle to effectively substitute for five private cars. With 3,000 vehicles planned to be included, these would in theory substitute for 15,000 private cars — meaning that if each car accounts for about 1.5 parking spaces, the region could eliminate 18,000 spaces ((15,000-3,000)*1.5). If parking spaces are on average about 180 square feet, that’s a not-insignificant 3.24 million square feet of urban space that can be reused for something else, like parks or in some cases new buildings. The €56 million public subsidy to install the stations (at €50,000 each) seems a small price to pay to free up all that room.
* Other providers, such as Nice’s Auto Bleue, have offered all-electric fleets, but they require users to return vehicles to the places where they picked them up.
** This difference is similar to the contrast between Paris’ Velib’ and Montréal’s Bixi bike sharing networks. Whereas Paris invested in stations that required tearing up the street, Montréal’s system relies on a series of pods that are set down impermanently on basically any flat surface and which can be later moved. The latter approach is cheaper, less physically intrusive, and more adaptable. On the other hand, the physical presence of the built stations of Autolib’ signify a permanence and easy-to-find nature that cannot be replicated by park-where-you-want systems like Car2Go.
Image above: An Autolib’ station under construction in Paris, from City of Paris