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Game Changer

Car sharing in cities

05. May 2021

Using existing potential instead of buying new: The trend is shifting from a culture of owning towards an infrastructure of sharing. What may sound restrictive is one element of a future-oriented philosophy: After all, sharing is a way to limit resource consumption and foster sustainable economic activity over the long term. This becomes clear in the context of urban mobility.

Carsharing

Car-sharing service in cities is booming. Photo: @iStock/Chesky_W

A new version of a tried-and-tested concept

There is nothing new about sharing everyday items with neighbours and acquaintances. It is entirely plausible that there is no need for all five households in a small block of flats to have their own hammer drill when each family will use it only once every two years. It’s not for no reason that sharing platforms like nebenan.de and fairleihen.de have been enjoying growing popularity for some years. However, a different picture emerges when it comes to the willingness to share cars – especially in Germany: In Munich, for example, 71% of all households have their own car even though “just” 58% of their passenger-distance is covered by this means. What’s more, private cars are used for only one hour a day and spend the other 23 parked, based on the German national average. This limits other uses of space – especially in urban areas – while parking gets more and more difficult with each new vehicle purchase.

This problem is one of the issues addressed by the sharing economy, which the author Rachel Botsman defines as an “economy built on distributed networks of connected individuals and communities [...] transforming how we can produce, consume, finance, and learn”. The fundamental idea is simple: Everything that can be shared with others should be. This philosophy is giving rise to a branch of the economy that deserves to be taken seriously.

Increasing use and users

The sharing economy has a growing presence in urban environments, and it is increasingly serving needs in the field of mobility. For instance, the number of car-sharing providers in Germany jumped from 45 to 226 between 2019 and 2020. Over the same period, the number of German cities where car sharing is available rose from 740 to 855. The free-floating model, which is especially well established in major cities as an alternative to station- or parking-space-based car-sharing schemes, saw the biggest growth: More than 1.5 million of the approximately 2.3 million car-sharing users are registered with a free-floating provider. The goal is to break dependency on private cars and to meet the net mobility demand without unnecessary stationary periods as far as possible. Users gain access to the vehicle via a smartphone app, which also processes their payment.

The best-known car-sharing service in Germany is Share Now. The company passed the three million registered users mark in 2020 and has a fleet of over 7,000 free-floating vehicles. A considerable 4,100 of these can be found in Berlin, Hamburg and the Rhineland alone – and 400 of them are battery-electric vehicles. Share Now is followed in second place by Flinkster, a service provided by the German railway company Deutsche Bahn, which has a not inconsiderable 315,000 users. Coming up behind the big two are smaller station-based providers such as Cambio, Stadtmobil and teilAuto, which primarily operates in Eastern Germany.

The cities benefit

Car sharing offers real benefits, especially in densely built urban conurbations. According to a study by the German industry association Bundesverband CarSharing (BCS) , a single shared vehicle has the potential to replace 20 passenger cars. That would save around 100 metres of kerb space. Seen from another perspective, car sharing has a positive impact because former parking spaces can be devoted to new uses in urban life, for instance as outdoor areas for cafes and restaurants or places for social interaction and exercise.

The numbers prove that reducing car purchases by focusing on sharing is not simply idealistic thinking. A representative survey of car-sharing users as part of the BCS study cited above found that 61.9% of this group got rid of a car either immediately before signing up or during their membership. Some 70% of respondents say they drive less frequently, while 40% use local public transport more frequently, and 32% cycle more often. One of the reasons for this is that owning a car generates ongoing fixed costs, whether it is stationary or on the road: To avoid paying for nothing, people tend to use their vehicle even when it is not strictly necessary. By contrast, sharing offers greater flexibility because users pay only for the distance that they actually cover.

A new concept from Sixt

A symbol of the “new” mobility is the strategy recently adopted by the car hire company Sixt, which has been well established for decades in the market for longer-term rentals. This is the reason why destinations such as airports and main-line railway stations always have a branch. But the company has also offered its customers a considerably more flexible option since 2019 with SIXT Share. With the aid of an app, they can display a car parked on the street on a digital map and open it. They can then rent the vehicle for just a few minutes or up to 27 days. This meets the need for fast and spontaneous mobility, something that only a private car could satisfy up until now.

More than just cars

But cars are not the only field in which sharing services have increased their influence significantly in the context of urban mobility infrastructure. Growing numbers of e-scooter and bicycle docking stations have been springing up in big cities for some time. These schemes are also based on apps, which allow users to rent a scooter or bicycle, and then return it to another docking station within the radius covered by the scheme. In terms of scooters, the big players are the Berlin provider Tier and the Californian company Lime, while bikes are provided by firms such as Nextbike from Saxony. These services are mainly about covering the last mile. For this reason, more and more scooter and cycle docking stations are appearing at crossroads near bus stops and railway stations.

While car sharing minimises the long stretches of time during which a parked vehicle is unused, schemes such as Lime supplement the local transport network. They are a quick and easy way to serve places not covered by bus or tram routes. Together, the two concepts have the potential to revolutionise mobility in urban spaces. The sharing economy shows that owning less and sharing more could offer many benefits. After all, starting the energy transition without making any sacrifices would be a futile undertaking.

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