Is carsharing truly only for the “young and affluent professionals”?

A recent opinion article appearing on the CBC Calgary website considers carsharing as an “avoidance tactic that allows a privileged group to bypass the gaps in our transportation network.”

This idea however is based on common misconceptions of the role of carsharing in a city. In Calgary, these misconceptions have occurred in part due to approaches used by the last city’s former operator, and which have seen them depart from Calgary, and North America in general for this reason too.

The first misconception, and the most important to address, is that carsharing replaces transit. The opposite is in fact true – carsharing supports transit, and vice-versa. Numerous studies done by various academic institutions explain that people who use carsharing services also increase their use of other modes, including transit, walking, biking, taxis (and also likely ride-hailing), than people who own a car. The personally-owned car is the enabler that makes you choose your own car as a default transportation mode. When the number of cars in a household is reduced, the many other choices you have become much more clear, and it’s an easier decision to use them.

Since Communauto has just launched in Calgary, we don’t have enough data yet to produce local figures, however a large Montreal study, done by the École Polytechnique de Montréal, shows households that use carshare drive four times less often than a comparable household owning one car, and they use transit and bicycle twice as much.

The reason for this induced behaviour shift is that the “sweet spot” for carsharing is not travelling to work, or quick A to B trips, as is the case for transit, taxi, and active transportation. You will note that you can’t end your Communauto FLEX trip in the heart of downtown Calgary (or downtown Toronto), and in Montreal, there is a supplemental charge to do so. Carsharing is too expensive to use for a regular daily commute, and too inconvenient for quick, short trips, where alternatives already abound (i.e. in a city’s downtown core).

Carsharing is more convenient, and more affordable for longer distances and complex errands: big grocery runs, moving items and people, visiting friends and relatives, travelling outside the city for work, and for leisure or vacation. Carsharing therefore is for trips specifically requiring a car, and for which even the best transit system does not work. This is also how carsharing organizations, in operation for several decades in Vancouver, Montreal, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Zurich, all work.

This is also why Communauto maintains partnerships with transit agencies in many of the cities where we operate, and the reason why one of the biggest public transit agencies in the world, the RATP in Paris, is an important shareholder in the French branch of Communauto.

The second misconception to discuss is the belief that carsharing will conflict with a city’s investments in improving public transit and active transportation. On the contrary, having a carsharing service available costs nothing (or very little) to a city, and it contributes revenue to the public treasury for the use of parking spaces and/or the issuance of carshare parking permits. Carsharing allows people to choose not to own a car, and increases the number of residents who are advocating for better public transit and active transportation infrastructure, along with more compact cities, closer services, and less space dedicated to parking for privately-owned vehicles. When you don’t own a car, and the cost to use one through carsharing is proportional to your usage, your cost-benefit analysis of using it is far more simple (and the all extra costs of personal car ownership are no longer of concern to the carshare user).

Finally, is carsharing only for a specific demographic, the “young and affluent professionals,”? Certainly that is a demographic attracted to carsharing, however our users are from a much wider background than that. Our demographics show that in mature carsharing cities, such as those mentioned above, the average age of users is close to 40, families with children are well represented, and retirement-age people are adopting carsharing more and more. In Montreal, retirement homes compete on providing carsharing to their residents.

We acknowledge that carsharing is not an option for everyone and improvement can be done. However it’s also not designed to cover every possible transportation need in a community. Understanding that carsharing is an alternative to car ownership, and not to transit, shows why certain things are required of members – you must have a licence, you must be insurable. However, the requirements for carsharing are far less stringent than those for owning your own car. Saving money is a large benefit, as recognized by consumers’ associations, and carsharing allows families to better balance their budgets when alternative transportation modes are available.

Ultimately, using carsharing to replace transit and active transportation trips is an unreal expectation, and unsustainable. Carsharing is designed to complement and support these other modes, not compete with them. (Car2Go’s failure in Calgary is unfortunately a witness to a competition mindset.) Working together, carsharing, transit, and active transportation are effective tools helping to replace the need to own a car. And, Communauto has been writing this version of the carsharing story for more than 25 years.