Car sharing: A solution that deserves more development

Since greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles have risen more than 33% since 1990, governments’ failure to take action and promote alternatives comes as quite a surprise. In fact, even if they keep on telling us that they want to solve the problem, their policies are often counterproductive. For instance, even if Montreal mayor Denis Coderre desperately wants to look good on the environmental front, his policies are hampering the development of car sharing.

If you’re not already an avid user, here’s how car sharing works. Subscribers pay an annual charge to be able to rent cars parked all over town from companies like Car2go on a pay-as-you-go basis. A good number of people in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal use these cars instead of owning their own.

Car-sharing services dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road. Indeed, a study by Elliott Martin and Susan Shaneen from U.C. Berkeley found that each car-sharing vehicle in Vancouver removed up to nine other vehicles. A household could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 15% if it chooses car sharing over a private car (p. 5).

To return to mayor Coderre, he has been limiting the number of car-sharing vehicles allowed in the city over the last few months. There could be more than 2,000 car-sharing vehicles throughout Montreal, but the administration currently limits the two providers (Car2go and Montreal-born Communauto) to barely more than half, i.e. 1,100 car-sharing vehicles. The reason given by the administration was its desire to increase the number of electric car-sharing vehicles by 2020, arguing therefore that gas-powered and hybrid car sharing should be restricted.

This decision comes as typical case of not seeing the wood for the trees. Even though electric car sharing is desirable, its integration into the available network should not prevent the creation of a car-sharing culture. Given that car-sharing vehicles have shorter service lives than private cars, the city administration could very well require that the car-sharing fleet be gradually replaced over the course of the coming years instead of preventing a sustainable transportation practice from expanding.

The importance of car sharing outside of major centres

Up until now, car sharing, at least in Quebec, has only been made available in large cities. Indeed, since car-sharing companies want to profit from their enterprises, they set up shop where the population density is at its highest. Furthermore, in many regions, distances are too great to allow car sharing to replace private vehicles.

Nonetheless, people who living outside of major centres would presumably benefit from car sharing instead of having to buy a second car. It’s worth remembering that a study by the Hautes Études commerciales (HEC) calculated that owning a car costs somewhere between $9,900 and $23,000 per year in addition to the price tag on the vehicle. Moreover, the province of Quebec is faced with a very real problem of isolation of the poor because those who live on low incomes are unable to travel across the territory, be it to visit acquaintances or to attend activities.

That’s why an initiative by community groups and a CDC on the South Shore of Montreal is so important: they created a not-for-profit organization to offer car sharing in the suburbs, over which the car rules as lord and master. (The area covered by the Marguerite-D’Youville CDC actually expands into agricultural lands beyond the suburbs.)

By opting for a not-for-profit structure, the organization will be able to offer car sharing to its members and aim to cover its costs rather than to turn a profit. In my humble opinion, this decision will make it possible to address the difficulties related to the smaller population size on the long run.

Car sharing is of course no quick fix for our environmental predicament (public transit is still preferable), but it’s a step in the right direction. It makes people’s lives easier at a low cost. It’s about time our governments stop throwing up roadblocks and turning their backs on this service.


Bertrand Schepper is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

One comment

  1. It would be useful to publish statistics regarding car sharing memberships as a percentage of population and car share trips as a percentage of all trips/ VKT – even for urban residents. This would provide a more fulsome context for the discussion and argument. In my view, car sharing is one component of the mobility ecosystem, which needs to facilitate more choice for both urban and suburban dwellers.

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