Saturday, March 16, 2013

Communauto in Paris: La guerre, No Sir !

Benoît Robert has been around longer than anyone else in North American carsharing.  As the pioneer founder and now Chief Executive Officer of Communauto, serving Montreal & Quebec City areas, he's seen a lot of changes.

Starting out carsharing in 1994 as a nonprofit (Auto-Com) he grew and made the decision to convert the company to a for profit business structure (described by him in this paper "Developing A Carshare: The Virtues of Pragmatism" published in 2000).

Since then the CommunAuto team has developed effective partnerships with regional transport providers and city governments, (recently announcing a combined transport fare card and vehicle access program.  As a business, CommunAuto has analyzed it's market and created remarkably inexpensive pricing and rate plans unique in the industry (Zipcar and other North American carshares, please take note).   Yet, through careful management it is likely that Communauto is one of the most profitable carshares in North America.  

CommunAuto has been a pioneer in the industry in sharing detailed trip data with researchers in order to develop a much clearer picture of the benefits of carsharing.  And they kept current with developments, including adding battery electric vehicles; announced it close to starting it's own peer-to-peer (P2P) carsharing service; as well as being close to offer a one-way/on-demand/floating parking carsharing service, which they call Libre-Service Intégral (see video at the bottom of this post).

Last year, CommunAuto surprised the carsharing world by acquiring Mobizen (translated link), one of several Paris carsharing companies and has just announced that CommunAuto members can drive Mobizen vehicles (and vice versa).  The following is an editorial written by Mssr. Robert for CommunAuto's newsletter L'echo-Mobile (Oct. 2012) which I think speaks directly to an ongoing problem many carshares face in dealing with the press and community partners.  There's confusion about carsharing in general and between round trip (traditional) and one-way carsharing services.

Communauto has arrived in Paris, what does this mean?

Let’s revisit the facts. On September 11th, Communauto announced the acquisition of Mobizen, the carsharing company previously owned by VeoliaTransdev.

As we stated in our press release at the time, “Our objective is to position the service [so] as to enable it to be a catalyst in reinforcing the offers of Autolib’, public transportation and traditional car rental.” We also pointed out that Autolib’ and Mobizen are “complementary services.”

How was this vision of complementarity interpreted by the media in Paris? These are some of the front- page headlines: 
             “Carsharing wars have begun” (Metro) 
             “Autolib’ has a Canadian competitor” (Figaro) 
             “Mobizen aiming to wrest Paris from Autolib’” (Challenge).

If we hadn’t known that sensationalism is a global scourge, we’d have wondered if we spoke the same language.

Divide and rule

The media aren’t the only ones to blame. In the last few years, several alternative transportation players both in France and elsewhere, particularly in England and the United States, have criticized “traditional” carsharing as they seek their own chance in the sun. So there is a risk that all the efforts in Paris could focus on one-way carsharing services like Autolib’. This would negate the City’s support of local carsharing pioneers since 1999, which would be unfortunate, to say the least.

Why should we be considered traditional? We, out of all people, know that Communauto and companies of the like have tackled the daunting task of changing how people use cars. 

Nothing less!

It’s a hard job and our goal has always been to make carsharing commonplace. When it becomes “commonplace,” “ordinary” or “traditional,” we’ll be the first to celebrate. It will mean we’ve succeeded in making carsharing so popular that it’s become a way of life.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. As industry pioneers, we’ve been persevering for nearly a quarter of a century now. Meanwhile car ownership has continued to increase on a global scale. Hence the importance of establishing links with other players seeking alternative solutions to individual car ownership.

Who benefits from keeping us divided and working individually?

Why go to Paris?

Someone once said, “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” We could say the same about the local authorities and how they are currently dealing with carsharing in various countries around the world. A major communication strategy will therefore be required to help decision makers gain a better understanding of what it’s all about and enable them to provide effective support. But our resources are limited...

Communauto’s arrival in Paris is part of this movement. At first we were tempted to stay in our comfort zone. But by doing so, we would have missed the extraordinary opportunity that a city like Paris can offer. It could allow us to broaden our influence beyond our borders and help break down the various obstacles that carsharing still faces.

The main problem is ignorance about the service and the impact of its different variants. It’s too early to criticize a certain approach or limit our options. We need to examine what is being done (including our own efforts) and work together to expand our knowledge in order to optomize the positive environmental impact of our services.

We share a common goal with Parisian authorities: finding the best way of providing a car-based mobility service and minimizing the need for cars at the same time. If we can get community stakeholders to support the idea of an objective approach, the City of Light’s image will help offset our limited communication resources to influence decision makers elsewhere in the world. If that happens, we’ll know we were right to go to Paris!

* This title refers to the acclaimed Quebec novel La Guerre, Yes Sir! written by Roch Carrier in 1968.