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Traffic’s heavy in Gastown, and I’m meant to be on the North Shore in half an hour. Looks bad, and this 2008 Toyota Matrix isn’t helping: it is, put generously, sluggish in the 0-to-60 department. I own a tiny fraction of this Matrix; it’s one of 250 or so automobiles in the Modo car co-op, to which I’ve belonged since 2010. For me, owning a little bit of a lot of cars is better than owning all of a single one. And the number of people like me is mushrooming: the co-op started (as the Vancouver Co-operative Auto Network) with 16 members; 15 years later, it’s at 8,000. At a recent SFU round table Phil Baudin, Modo’s executive director, explained that this surge in popularity is due to four things: rising gas prices, increased parking costs, growing concern over vehicles’ environmental footprint (sharing cars dramatically reduces use), and the ease brought to transactions by the Internet and mobile telephony.
Booking the Toyota was simple. I logged onto Modo.coop. A Google map showed me every car in the area available during my desired slot. I chose the Matrix over a 2010 Nissan and a 2007 Hyundai not for economy (all rentals cost the same) but ease—when I return the car to its EasyPark home later, the bar where I’m meeting friends is only a block away. At my scheduled time, I found the Toyota, opened it with my keychain fob, and off I went.
At 9 p.m., I’ll return the car to its berth, note the mileage (to corroborate the system’s remote monitoring and generate a receipt), and head for the bar. Every month, a digital bill in my inbox summarizes charges. The four hours to North Van and back will cost $21.40 ($3 per hour, plus 40 cents a kilometre)—which seems a fair bit, until you consider that gas, insurance, and parking in any resident zone are included; there’s no maintenance or repairs; and when the car’s safely home I walk away. (I do continue to own 1/8,000th of it.)
“The car of the future will be shared,” Baudin told the SFU group, and looking at the growth rate (the movement began in Switzerland in the late ’80s; now there are 600 co-op networks around the globe), I’m inclined to agree. Growth will continue for reasons both hard-nosed (it’s expensive to own a car: in Vancouver, it’s our second highest expense, behind housing but ahead of food) and soft. We live in a sharing age. We borrow movies from Netflix and songs from Spotify. We eat at communal tables and use time-share condos and vacation properties and phone plans. Will owning, I wonder, as I crawl along in Gastown traffic, eventually become passé?
Another day, and I’m driving a Honda CR-V. This one’s part of the Zipcar fleet—an American company begun in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999. Unlike Modo, Zipcar (“Wheels when you want them”) is long on personality, edge, and, well, zip. The reservation system is similar (though there’s a proper iPhone app), but the vibe is something else. Zipcar’s strategy is to make friendly the whole registration and booking process, to position car-sharing as hip and urbane. To reward users for occupying the leading edge of smart consumption.
“Hello my name is ‘Casini’,” read the description when I moused over the CR-V in the booking system (Zipcar.com/vancouver). “Like a middleweight champ, these crossover SUVs are compact and powerful. With seating for five, roomy storage, and AWD, these tykes pack a punch. Ding!”
Given that my son and I are just heading across town for brunch at the Red Wagon, this punch-packing tyke is perhaps rental overkill. I’ve booked Casini (all cars are named by members—there’s a Nissan Sentra named Sedrick, a Ford Escape called Ellen) for a couple hours, which entails a certain anxiety: every trip feels like the parking’s about to run out. Plan to run errands then bump into friends? The reservation’s ticking, and late fees are $35 an hour. You can extend your booking—assuming no one’s squatting on the time after yours—and, eyeing the lineup at Red Wagon, I buy another 30 minutes of Casini. Final bill: $13.25 an hour for 2.5 hours = $33.13 (taxes, charges, and mileage included). Modo’s rates would be half that.
Zipcar’s demographic is business-friendly and upscale: cars are cleaned often and swapped out after two years. In fact, though the web site reads “Car Sharing, an Alternative to Car Rental and Car Ownership,” the feel is more Hertz than driving circle. Founder Robin Chase, talking to the New York Times Magazine, explained her problem with the “sharing” label. When she and co-founder Antje Danielson (who imported the idea from Berlin) were struggling with a company name, “We tried ‘U.S. Carshare.’ That was how I learned that 40 percent of the people I talked to have an extremely negative reaction to the word ‘sharing.’ I banned my staff from using the phrase ‘car sharing.’ Do we call hotels ‘bed sharing’? That’s way too intimate. Do we call bowling ‘shoe sharing’?”
Mark Pribula, GM of Zipcar Vancouver, says that with three companies ours is “the most competitive market in North America”; even so, only two percent of eligible drivers use car-sharing. Growth, he contends, needs to be organic: more word of mouth (“It’s a business that needs a lot of credibility to counter inertia”), more street-level signage (Zipcar rents parking in well-branded lots at street level), more free demos, more booths at summer festivals. And more young people. Zipcar partners with universities around North America, banking on the marketing truism that if you get them young, you get them for life. If Modo’s Baudin says the future is shared, Zipcar’s Pribula is more focused on the attitude of “I don’t want people in my ride.” It has to change.
In truth, Zipcar and Modo are two sides of the same fob. Book the car, drive it, return it. Car2Go takes a different approach. Owned by manufacturer Daimler, Car2Go launched in the German university town of Ulm in 2008. Since then, it’s spread through Europe (Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Lyon, and Amsterdam), the U.S. (D.C., San Diego, and Austin), and now here. There’s no variety—the fleet consists of 325 Fortwo Smart cars. The wrinkle is that, whether you book ahead or grab it off the street (three-quarters of members book spontaneously), it’s a one-way drive. No need to plan a route that will bring you back to a lot. No need (apart from the meter) to keep an eye on the clock. Cost is per hour, and the termination point must be within the city of Vancouver, north of 49th. In the company’s Gastown offices, next to the Old Spaghetti Factory, a real-time map shows the fleet in flight. Every night a crew gathers the cars from Kits, Shaughnessy, and East Van, and returns them to commuter home base, the West End. Cleaned and gassed, they await the morning diaspora.
I’d never driven a Smart car before, and the experience was surprising: the interior is actually roomy, visibility is fine, and, yes, I do feel more prey than predator. Parking is theoretically easy, given the narrow wheel base, but unless you’re a parallel parking ninja it’s pretty standard. Oh, and there’s no room for cargo. I booked one for errands. On my first stop I picked up a set of computer speakers—too large for the hatchback—but then worried about leaving them so visibly on the seat beside me. (I had in mind the Car2Go torched during the Stanley Cup riots—a rude welcome to the company’s first car.) Rental is $13 per hour; when I abandoned the car at Main and E. 23rd, it felt a bit like ducking out the fire escape. As if I’d gotten away with something.
In this way, Car2Go is less shared car than personal taxi. Baudin’s four growth drivers apply equally to both: cab companies, like car sharers, were early adopters of hybrids; their drivers avoid paying for parking; and technology has simplified booking. The Car2Go fleet is half that of local cabs (there are 588 full-time taxi licences in Vancouver) and is a function of density—it will be a long time before the suburbs see these schemes. Their eventual adoption will be developer-driven. At the Electric Avenue condos by the courthouse, developer Wall Financial skipped building a whole floor of parking by buying seven Modo vehicles for tenant use, and Baudin gets at least one call a week from developers wanting in on the condo/car-share action. Both Car2Go and Zipcar hope to get a slice of that business when the city seeks requests for proposals later this year.
And how’s Car2Go faring? Forget 8,000 members in 15 years; Car2Go signed up 10,000 members in six months. As car-sharing gains traction, we’ll see fewer cabs, fewer private vehicles, and many more communal little cars we can proudly, sort of, call our own.