Why Vancouver's leading car-sharing companies will never be able to pry the keys from David Godsall's fingers


I like to drive. There, I said it. I’m one of those people melting ice caps and enriching Middle Eastern despots not because I can’t earn a living without a car and not because the housing market is forcing me to commute from Mission (or wherever it is desperate Vancouverites are buying single-family homes these days).


I don’t even drive because I have to take kids to hockey practice; in fact, I shudder at the thought. I live downtown and I don’t drive to work, so I’m left peddling thin excuses: “my car is for getting groceries” or “my car is for going to Ikea” (even though I hardly need another Billy or Klippan).


My only reason for owning, maintaining and piloting a car – at what, given insurance rates and the looming spectre of peak oil, amounts to considerable expense – is the enjoyment I get from the villainy I perpetuate. Living and working in downtown Vancouver, there is, ultimately, no excuse.


Vancouver primed but resistent to car sharing model

Vancouver is the third-densest city in North America, second only to New York and San Francisco, and its residents are increasingly choosing to get around by more sustainable means; the 2006 census shows a 5 percent decline since 2001 in the number of people commuting by car. Despite considerable progress, however, the car remains stubbornly entwined with British Columbian lifestyles.


We revelled in the boost to our greenie image when our premier announced the carbon tax and we’ll congratulate ourselves again when the Canada Line opens for business, but even the most wide-eyed optimist must acknowledge the hurdles we face. Vehicle ownership per Metro Vancouver resident grew in the last census by 7 percent; residents of less dense cities with better transit infrastructure, such as Toronto and Montreal, are still more likely to leave their cars at home than Vancouverites.


One need only witness the festival of auto ego that is Yaletown on a sunny Saturday to understand the persistence of car culture.


The contradictions evident in these trends reflect growing tensions over the role of the car in our shiny, happy, EcoDense city. Awareness of environmental issues such as climate change and the resulting antipathy toward cars continues to grow, but there is as yet little evidence that Vancouverites are really willing to give up their wheels.


Vancouver car sharing companies banking on necessity and 'freedom' to grow market share

It is in this context – the gap between our eco-conscious attitudes and our reluctance to eschew driving – that car-sharing organizations are hoping to thrive.


The two leading companies in Vancouver, 12-year-old Co-operative Auto Network (CAN) and one-year-old upstart Zipcar, use two very different strategies: CAN implores us to drive less and use a shared car when we have to, while Zipcar touts the freedom and convenience of access to a cool car just an online booking away. Either way, the message is the same: you no longer have to own a car to enjoy its benefits.


Car sharing is, in some ways, an idea as old as Marx and Engels: redundancy is surplus, and when goods are owned collectively by groups of people, fewer goods are ultimately needed. Of course, members of car-sharing organizations are not promoting an ideology of governance or economics or property: they just prefer not to own something as costly as a car if they don’t have to; avoiding insurance, gas and upkeep payments (all of which are included) is a welcome bonus.


All car-sharing schemes charge members a combination of per-hour and per-kilometre rates, so the cost-benefit equation depends entirely on how much you drive. Tracey Axelsson, CAN’s 41-year-old founder and executive director, argues that this is the intrinsic environmental advantage of car sharing: people drive less because they pay by the trip.


Co-operative Auto Network BC's largest car sharing company

CAN was conceived as a practicum project by Axelsson while she was a post-baccalaureate student at SFU back in the mid-’90s. Since then the not-for-profit outfit has grown to become B.C.’s largest car-sharing organization, with more than 4,200 members and 218 vehicles.


Axelsson says her members are attracted to the organization’s communitarian ethos but that no one signs up for CAN – forgoing the luxuries of individual car ownership, such as having an empty Starbucks cup repository in the back seat and adorning the rear bumper with stuck-on witticisms – because they’re simply enamoured with the idea of collectivization.


She’s the first to admit that it’s all about saving money. “We raised the hourly rate by 50 cents,” she laments, “and usage dropped appreciably. Fifty cents!”


Pamela Leaman, 67, a member since 2001, confirms Axelsson’s observation: “I use it for grocery shopping and day trips with other seniors. I’m on a fixed income and the low cost really helps.”

Axelsson sees cars as an infrequently necessary evil she can mitigate by offering a cheaper alternative to individual ownership. “We’re trying to replace the personal automobile by mirroring the service it provides,” she explains, “and we do it by trying to ensure that our service makes sense financially.”


CAN is a co-op, which means members buy a $500 share when they sign up and can cash out when they give up their membership. This structure enables easy scalability because Axelsson can just buy more cars when she gets more members; and because CAN is a not-for-profit, all its revenue is reinvested, with the size of the fleet always proportional to its use.


An important corollary is the lack of an incentive – the profit motive – to promote further use of the cars: this is central to CAN’s claim of environmental benefits but also to the organization’s resolutely anti-car position. Summing up the attitude at the core of her automotive ideology, Axelsson exclaims defiantly: “it’s just a car!” For her and her members, car sharing is a rational, utility-maximizing, cost-minimizing transportation strategy. Car ownership, however, is often not.