Friday, May 23, 2008

The Future of the Car is Carsharing

Recently I was asked by the City of Portland what I thought carsharing might look like in 5-10 years.  Of course, the answer depends on all sorts of external factors — gas prices, climate change policies and road construction to name a few. 

My vision of the future is: roads will be increasingly crowded for longer periods every day; gasoline costs will continue to go up and regional centers will provide more shops and services reducing the need to drive across town; density in urban areas will increase making improvements in public transportation (bus and rail) possible — attracting new riders; vehicle taxes will be instituted cover more of the actual cost of roads, highways and safety, making car ownership more expensive.

Carsharing services will provide some new service models: open-ended trips without having to specify a return time (although that will still be an option) and cars on demand just go to the car, swipe your card and drive off – no reservation no return time.  Such services are already offered in Europe but can only be successful when there is a high density of vehicles and members in an area.  (I don't foresee one-way trips between certain stations as it's a logistical nightmare to administer and such trips can be better served by taxicabs right now.)

Carsharing will be in the suburbs, as well, and not just around transit hubs and regional centers where higher density mixed used development can support carsharing.   Car owners will be able to make their cars available to the carsharing members for a few days at a time and share the revenues with the service.

Carsharing will team up with public transit agencies, including a newly-invigorated Amtrak, to offer integrated regional mobility passes.  Members will locate the closest carsharing vehicle or transit stop with a dynamic map on their cell phone.

As the nature of car ownership changes, new organizations will enter the carsharing field.  Car rental companies, and maybe even a car manufacturer, will get into carsharing in some areas.   Non profit carshares will likely appear in many cities offering lower cost service with more basic or more environmentally-friendly vehicles, including electric scooters, neighborhood electric vehicles, as well as traditional gasoline and gas-hybrid vehicles.

As a result carsharing membership could grow to 10-15% of the drivers living in neighborhoods served by carsharing — up from the 1-2% now. And an increasing number of those households will be car free, walking, bicycling and using public transportation for most of their trips and carsharing when they need the convenience and flexibility. This means that parking demand will be lower in some areas and some parking garages may be converted into commercial or residential properties.

As a result of all these changes, people will be happier, healthier and cities more vibrant than today. But it won’t happen unless we help it along.  What do you think?