Cars are among the largest polluters in the world. They contribute to the smog that hangs over many large cities and they’re a major culprit in the creation of greenhouse gas emissions. But most of us are reluctant to give up our cars altogether. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, a growing number of North Americans are opting to share a car instead:
Cars are among the largest polluters in the world. They contribute to the smog that hangs over
many large cities and they’re a major culprit in the creation of greenhouse gas emissions. But
most of us are reluctant to give up our cars altogether. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly reports, a growing number of North Americans are opting to share a car instead:
(sound of stroller)
Nathalie Buu is pushing a stroller past the shops in a trendy neighborhood in Canada’s capital,
Ottawa. She’s heading for a car which is parked about four blocks from her apartment. It’s a
Toyota Echo and she shares it with about 15 other people. When she gets to the parking lot, Buu
wheels the stroller over to a black box attached to the side of a building.
“So you take the, umm, open the lock box and the keys for the car are inside.”
Buu belongs to Vrtucar, a car-sharing company based in Ottawa. There are almost 200
members, and they share 11 cars. The cars are parked all over the downtown area.
Buu has two kids and a regular commute. Still, she and her husband decided they didn’t really
need a vehicle.
“When we had a car, we just found it more of a headache to have to think about repairing it or
bringing it for an oil change, and having had a car in a busy city like Montreal, we don’t really
agree with having cars in the city. It’s just too busy a place and you should be able to use public
transport, I think.”
Nowadays, Buu takes the bus to her job as a doctor at a local hospital. And when she needs to
use a car, she calls an 800 number to reserve one.
The decision to share a vehicle has been quickly gaining in popularity. Car sharing began in post
war Europe. The first North American company opened in Quebec in 1994.
Today, there are 29 companies in North America, most of them in bigger cities like New York,
Chicago and Toronto.
Susan Shaheen is a researcher at UC-Berkeley who studies car-sharing. She says companies tend
to spring up in places where owning a car has become a hassle.
“These organizations tend to thrive when driving disincentives exist such as high parking costs or
congestion. Alternative modes are easily accessible, such as transit and something we see quite
often in the early adoption of this type of service is some environmental consciousness.”
Concern about the environment was one of the main reasons Wilson Wood and his business
partner Chris Bradshaw started Vrtucar. They bought the first car in 2000. They hope to have
twenty by the end of next year. The weird thing is, Wood says they’re actually opposed to
“I can’t think of two worse guys to run a car business. You know, we hate cars. We believe the
hierarchy of transportation needs should be: your first choice is your foot, your second choice is
your bike, your third choice is your bus, and the last choice should be an automobile.”
But Wood says the reality is, sometimes you need a car. He finds most members use them for
longer trips within the city, where public transportation isn’t convenient. Not surprisingly, the
cars are especially in demand on evenings and weekends. But the company keeps them in
parking lots spaced just a half mile apart. So if the closest car isn’t available, another one is
Nathalie Buu says she uses the car for big shopping trips or to attend meetings in the suburbs.
And she says she rarely has trouble getting one.
“I tend to be last minute and I’ll just call and say is the car available right now? And very often it
is. I’ve never had a problem that way, which has been great.”
Buu says car sharing is cheaper for them as well. They don’t have a car payment. They don’t pay
for parking, insurance, maintenance or gas on a car they’d only use a few times a month.
However, they do pay fees. It starts with a 500 dollar insurance deductible which is returned if
you leave the company. There’s also a monthly fee of either 10, 20 or 30 dollars, depending on
how often you drive. And you pay for time and distance, which averages about 15 dollars for a
three hour, 22-mile trip.
It’s cheaper than renting a car for the day. But still, 15 bucks may seem a bit pricey for 3 hours in
a car. Make this argument to Wilson Wood and he’ll pull out figures from the Canadian
Automobile Association. They estimate it costs about 5 thousand dollars a year to own a new car.
Plus, Wood argues, car share members use their cars more wisely.
“Our members are making more efficient and more environmentally intelligent choices because
they’re bundling their trips. They say, ‘oh geez, I know I’ve only got the car once this week and
I’m going to take it for 2 hours on Friday afternoon after work so I’m going to do this, this and
(sound in car)
Not everyone joins just to save money.
Nathalie Buu says her choice was a more personal one.
“If everybody was doing this sort of thing, then we’d have less pollution in the cities. And if
you’re thinking about the future, not only your future but the future of our own kids and the air
they’re breathing and the life they’ll live, I think it’s important to think about that and not just our
But it’s not always easy. And Buu says that’s okay. Because she feels like she’s helping to create
the kind of environment that she’d like to live in.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.