A City CarShare car
Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

For all the benefits automobiles provide, their impact on air quality has been quite harsh. I’m as concerned about the environment as the next person, and as I look out over the smog-filled skies of California, I can’t help but be annoyed at the millions of cars spewing pollutants into the air. I’m driving one of those cars, of course: modern life being what it is, the need to get from place to place seems to take precedence over the need to breathe. Still, my conscience is clearer than the air because the car I’m driving is owned by a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce the number of cars on the road. In this city, as in a growing number of places around the world, modern technology has joined forces with ages-old ideas of community ownership to produce a brilliant new system of car sharing.

I have been aware of the concept of car sharing for years, but I must confess that it took a while for me to warm to the idea of participating personally. I had owned a car almost since I was old enough to drive, and the notion of not having my own car—and the freedom it provided—was hard to accept. I imagined it to be like carpooling: an idea I agreed with in theory, but could never see myself putting into practice. I didn’t want to be rigidly tied to someone else’s schedule, without control over where I drive and when. It took a good strong dose of city driving to enable me to see the light.

Driving Me Mad

Although there are many things to love about San Francisco, it is not a great place for drivers. Parking spots are notoriously hard to find, and many residents pay dearly for a permanent off-street parking spot. Car ownership is expensive in other ways too. The costs of car insurance, gasoline, and maintenance are high; theft, vandalism, and accidents are common. More importantly for me, dealing with traffic congestion and road rage during my daily commute began taking its toll on my mental health. I liked my car—it worked perfectly well and was fully paid for. I even had a parking spot. But the headaches of car ownership had begun to outweigh the benefits. At the end of 2001, after much contemplation I made a strategic decision: I was going to become a non-car owner. I sold my car, and put my fate in the hands of mass transit.

San Francisco has a generally excellent public transportation system, including buses, subways, light-rail trains, and cable cars. There’s also a commuter train that extends down the peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose, airport shuttle vans, and of course plentiful taxis. I figured that if I made maximum use of these resources (along with my legs and occasionally my bicycle), I could get pretty much anywhere I needed to go. I had deliberately chosen to live in a neighborhood served by several different transit lines, just to keep my options open.

Man Cannot Buy Bread Alone

There were a few instances I needed to consider in which simply getting from place to place was not enough. Take grocery shopping, for example. A local market is fine if all you’re buying is milk and bread, but I was used to filling up my trunk with a dozen or more bags of food every few weeks. Luckily, two major supermarket chains (Safeway and Albertsons) offer online ordering and inexpensive home delivery in the city, so that problem went away. For an occasional weekend trip out of town, car rental agencies provided a reasonable—if somewhat pricey—solution. Other transportation needs were met by borrowing a car, riding with a friend, or taking a cab.

For a full year I lived this way, commuting to work on the train, taking a bus to the movies, and blissfully enjoying freedom from car ownership. My monthly bills were lower than ever, and my stress level had decreased dramatically too. Then, when my job changed, I moved to a new neighborhood and started to experience some frustration. Public transit was still good, but now I needed to get across the bay to shop at IKEA, go to a doctor’s appointment across town, or run a quick errand to an outlying city that would take me half a day on the train. These sorts of trips came up with increasing frequency, and renting a car or van to take care of them was both expensive and inconvenient. That’s when I signed up for City CarShare.

Drive, He Said

Unlike carpooling, car sharing gives me the independence to drive wherever and whenever I want, at a tiny fraction of the cost of owning a car. The concept is basically very simple: A co-op owns a fleet of cars—many of them brand-new green Volkswagen Beetles, but also station wagons, pickups, and other vehicles—and members can use a car whenever it’s not already spoken for. Because there are plenty of vehicles in the fleet, chances are excellent that when I need a car, one will be available. The cars are kept at lots all over the city, and in about 30 seconds I can use a Web site or automated phone system to make a reservation for a few hours or even a few days. If a car is available, I don’t even need advance notice: I can call on my cell phone from the parking lot, and then hop in and drive away. Each member has an electronic key fob that opens the doors, and the car has a radio link to headquarters that allows the company to enable or block access for individual fobs.

After an initial application fee and deposit, members pay just US$10 per month, plus very reasonable fees for the time and distance they actually drive. For local trips, this invariably ends up being way less expensive than a conventional car rental. But the real beauty of the system is that the organization takes care of maintenance and insurance, washes the cars, and even pays for gas. It’s as nearly hassle-free as car ownership can be. In exchange for the tiny added step of having to schedule your car use, you eliminate most of the worries of owning a car—and save lots of money too.

First Watches and Knives, Now This

City CarShare is modeled after highly successful programs in Europe. The first modern car sharing program began in Switzerland in 1987. Over the years, smaller organizations have banded together under a larger group called Mobility, which now has more than 56,000 subscribers. Mobility, in turn, is part of the European Car Sharing consortium, whose members enjoy car sharing benefits in Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Italy as well. This extensive membership has made it possible to integrate shared cars into larger regional transit programs. In Zürich, for example, you can buy a single transit pass that can be used for trams, buses, trains, and ships in addition to cars. Some cities have programs affiliated with the rail system so that you can pick up your car at the train station—handy for day trips and shopping excursions.

Car sharing has gradually been catching on all over the United States and Canada. From Boston to Seattle, Montréal to Vancouver, programs of varying sizes have sprung up, with more in the planning stages. Anywhere crowded streets, limited parking, and high car ownership costs converge, someone gets the idea that there must be a better way, and car sharing certainly represents one effective solution. It may be good for the environment, but as far as I’m concerned, the best reason to share a car is reducing stress. My own mental health has improved by over 12% since I gave up owning a car, and the money I’ve saved has paid for a lot of Swedish furniture. —Joe Kissell

More Information

This article was featured in the Carnival of Cars for Friday, July 14, 2006.

For a good summary of car sharing worldwide, visit CarSharing.net. To find out if a program is available in your city, see this list of local, regional, and national programs.

European Car Sharing (ECS) has an excellent and detailed site describing the program and its member organizations. In Switzerland, Mobility (Web site in German and French only) is the national umbrella organization of car sharing programs.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, check out City CarShare, a nonprofit organization that keeps the city green (both figuratively and literally, with their ubiquitous green VW Beetles).

If inexpensive Swedish home furnishings are your thing, visit the IKEA Web site where you can download their massive catalog or find a store near you.

For online grocery shopping, Safeway and Albertsons are good regional choices. Both chains offer home delivery for a flat fee of less than US$10, and you can schedule deliveries as early as the next day.