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Carsharing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

by Belle Bergner

How would you like to have a key to a few dozen dependable cars across Milwaukee, available at a moment’s notice and without the hassle of sudden repairs at a fraction of the cost? A growing new industry across the country aims to give you just that. carPicVWbug.jpgThe American institution of the one-car-per-household or driver threatens to be dismantled somewhat by a booming carsharing industry across the U.S. Carsharing began in Europe in the late 1980s. Today there are over 100,000 members in at least 12 European countries. In the U.S., approximately 20 communities have carsharing organizations with more than 600 cars being shared by over 25,000 members. Sporting names like “Mini Mia” and “Beetle Barry,” such as those named by Zipcar out of Boston, these cars are new and fun to drive. With options ranging from Toyota hybrids to BMW sedans, there’s a car for every type of person and combustible engine need. Convincing enough Milwaukeeans that they will be better off by joining a carshare organization than hanging on to their current car or buying a new one may not be difficult, says Sonya Newenhouse, founder and vice president of Community Car in Madison, a three-month-old carshare business. But she says it will require introducing them to the concept, convincing them that they need it, and that it is a reliable service. Madison’s Community Car has 40 members and 3 cars after being in business for a few short months, and they will add more cars as membership grows. It costs $50 to apply for membership, and then there are various rate options depending on how much you use the car. The basic rate is a $15 monthly membership fee and a $4.50-an-hour and 40-cents-a-mile charge whenever the vehicle is in use. Carshare organizations in other cities have different rates, ranging from a $30 to $80 membership fees, $300 refundable deposit, and $7.50 – $12.50 per hour used. Some plans give up to 125 miles free per month, others don’t. Insurance and maintenance costs are included in these rates. Riverwest would be a prime neighborhood to start carsharing due to the dense concentration of people and predominantly 24+ year olds who walk, bike, or take the bus at least three times per week. These are factors that are necessary for a carsharing business to be profitable, according to the feasibility study completed in 2002 by Newenhouse, also president of Madison Environmental Group, an environmental consulting firm in Madison. Newenhouse suggests that people do a simple calculation of their monthly car cost to determine whether carsharing is for them. Their study found that in Madison the average annual cost for a newer car is $7,008 versus $1,968 for an older paid-off car, including gas, maintenance, and insurance. Community Car members average between $500 and $1,000 per year depending on how much they use the cars. The numbers are clear: it’s more economical to share. The numbers for pollution reduction are even clearer. For every gallon of gas burned, a car emits 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, that invisible-though-potent greenhouse gas that is warming our planet, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and increasing extinction rates across the globe. If you drive 10 miles alone per day, you emit 0.40 pounds of other pollutants a day, or 100.80 pounds per year. These pollutants are believed by scientists to be the cause of increasing asthma rates and other health problems in cities. Multiply those numbers by all cars in the U.S., and you have a country whose carbon dioxide emissions are 25% of the entire world’s with a third of all emissions originating from automobiles alone. A recent UC-Berkeley study of San Francisco’s carshare program shows that each CarShare vehicle was associated with 22 fewer private cars on the roads as members gave up their cars or decided not to purchase new ones. Members reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 71% when compared to a control group, as a result of driving less and using more fuel efficient cars, and they chose to drive 50% fewer miles when compared to a control group. Members also chose more often to walk, bike, and take public transit, and their travel times significantly increased after joining. Newenhouse was convinced that carsharing was for her when she “divorced” her car after a 6-week trial separation. She purposely pretended to not have her car, letting it sit in her driveway and trying alternate forms of transportation instead. Since she lives two miles from her workplace, it wasn’t hard to walk, bus, or take a taxi when she needed. After the six-week separation and only needing the car twice, it was clear that she didn’t really need her car after all. Try divorcing yourself of your car. Do the math. Can you get around as much as you need without it or using it less? Would it save you money? Do you feel healthier after six weeks from walking more often? The steady growth of the carsharing business suggests that you will. Now let’s hope Community Car starts in Milwaukee soon.
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