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Car-Sharing: Transportation Solution or Eco-Hoax?


In cities across the US, people are hearing of new car-sharing programs that let subscribers drive cars for a few hours during the day.  It’s promoted as a way to reduce toxins and CO2 emissions by allowing drivers to leave their cars at home, take mass transit to work, and rent a car for trips during the day.

 

But is there any evidence that car-sharing actually reduces the number of cars on the road?  Or could it be an eco-hoax that generates money for a few car rental companies while actually making environmental problems worse?

 

In January 2008, Enterprise Rent-A-Car trumpeted its introduction of a car-sharing program at Washington University in St. Louis.  The local press ate up the story, which appeared repeatedly on local TV, radio and papers.

 

The West End Word [1] announced that the Enterprise venture, called WeCar, was the first-of-a-kind “environmentally friendly” program for St. Louis.  By paying $10 an hour for a Toyota Prius or $12 per hour for a Ford Enterprise, students, staff and faculty could do their little bit for the environment.

 

Washington University’s own newspaper, the Record, [2] displayed a photo of a hybrid WeCar on the front page as it patted itself on the back for the school’s environmental conscience.  It beamed that the program “…is part of the University’s push to promote sustainability.  The program utilizes exclusively hybrid vehicles and keeps other cars off the road, reducing carbon emissions.”

 

The press stories parroted the company’s claim that many drive to work only because they occasionally need a car for an errand or emergency trip.  The WeCar would supposedly encourage drivers to use mass transportation because they know that a car is available for day time needs.  In other words, the moral virtue of car-sharing is that it should reduce the number of cars on the road.

 

But the less than progressive St. Louis Post-Dispatch let the cat out of the bag. [3]  Its story began with an account of a student who would use WeCar instead of mass transit.  The student recalled “…the misery of lugging bags from Target and Best Buy on the Metrolink and then back to her dorm room.”  For this student, and who knows how many others, there would be no push to improve the St. Louis train system because WeCar would help replace mass transit use with individual car rental. 

 

The next month, Enterprise Rent-A-Car expanded its car-sharing program to downtown St. Louis.  Again, the Post-Dispatch had no trouble finding someone who planned to use car-sharing to increase the number of cars.  It quoted an urban planner who was enthusiastic that using WeCar for mid-day errands would save “…the time walking to the parking garage and then looking for an open space.” [4]  WeCar is being pumped on the idea that people who drive to downtown jobs can use a different car to buzz around the city.

 

While most area media content themselves to bubble enthusiastically about advantages of car-sharing, the business-oriented Post-Dispatch is far more subtle.  It describes the same environmental benefits that appear in other stories.  But it also points out that car-sharing is likely to cause the number of cars sold to go up, not down.  It’s as if to tell the business community, “Throw the enviros a sop because they’ll be happy with anything; but we know that corporate expansion is the prime directive.”

 

What does “green” transportation really mean?  Increasing the number of trains and busses on the road is not green transportation.  Increasing the number of bicycles and scooters is not green transportation.  Not even increasing the amount of car-pooling and car-sharing is green transportation.

 

Green transportation means reducing the number of autos and trucks on the road — by a huge amount, not by a little bit.

 

Increasing trains and busses could be green transportation — but if and only if it is part of an actual decrease in the number of automobiles.  Likewise, increasing bicycles, scooters, car-pooling and car-sharing is truly green transportation only if it helps the number of cars go down. 

 

Otherwise, all of these are nothing more than eco-gimmicks that are part of the problem in a double way.  First they require the manufacture and distribution of even more consumer items, which is the opposite direction of where we should be going.  Even worse, eco-gadgets give people a sense that they are helping to solve problems when they are not.

 

There’s good reason to suspect that Washington University might be more adept at projecting an environmental image than walking the environmental walk.  Reducing the number of cars on campus has never been a priority for this academic partner of St. Louis-based Monsanto. 

 

In 2000, Washington University celebrated Earth Day by clearing a patch of 100-year old trees to make room for a parking lot.  As Jim Hightower was inside recounting the idiocies of the Bush administration the roar of chainsaws could be heard outside.  When Green Party Co-coordinator Barbara Chicherio complained, the dean himself wrote back explaining the need for “progress” and urged her to visit the neighboring Forest Park to enjoy its trees.

 

We should be deeply suspicious of any program that adds cars to the road before it increases the efficiency of mass transit.  St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who has antagonized virtually every progressive cause in the city, loves WeCar.  He assured the public that “WeCar will make downtown more livable” and that the program “will help the environment.” [4]

 

From the other side of his mouth, Francis Slay is a principle supporter of construction on I-64.  This massive interstate expansion will create no highway bus lanes or even HOV lanes.  (High Occupancy Vehicle lanes can only be used by cars with multiple passengers.)  One purpose of the Slay-backed I-64 expansion is to bring as many single-occupancy cars as possible into the St. Louis business district.

 

Once in downtown St. Louis, drivers will have the opportunity to get yet another car solely for the convenience of not having to find a parking space after a day trip.  Car-sharing will increase the quantity of space dedicated to parking lots.

 

Bringing more cars into downtown St. Louis will push people away from an already stressed mass transit system.  Buses and trains which are mainly empty produce more CO2 than if those riders drove cars.  Mass transit can only be an environmental plus if it has high usage — the current plan for car-sharing works in the opposite direction.

 

Proponents of car-sharing could well stamp their feet in outrage at this analysis.  We could argue forever concerning whether the examples in this article are the exception or the rule of car-sharing programs. 

 

But quibbling about whether the number of people who leave cars at home vs. the number for whom car-sharing means an additional vehicle misses the point.  If car-sharing were part of an overall environmental program, that program would begin by counting the number of cars in a city, country or planet and say, “This is the percentage of reduction of cars (and parking spaces) that will occur and this is how car-sharing will fit into the big picture.” 

 

No one discusses a big picture for car-sharing fads.  The reason is simple.  The goal of corporate society is to increase the number of cars in use. 

 

Car-sharing is becoming yet another way that corporate economics takes a basically good idea and perverts it into its opposite. Car-sharing should be a way to decrease the total quantity of cars.  Instead, it is being used to increase them. 

 

Please don’t get the impression that I am against car-sharing.  I am among its strongest supporters.  I believe that as we reduce the number of cars on the road by 95%, those that remain should be car-shared, ride-shared hybrids.

 

But let’s stick our heads in the sand.  Corporate America no more intends to reduce the number of cars than it does to provide free medical care to those with emphysema and other car-related diseases.  Anyone who is serious about reducing the number of cars needs to look way beyond market “solutions.”

 

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of The Greens/Green Party USA.  He can be contacted at [email protected]

 

Notes

 

1. Jamie Scott, Introducing WeCar, a car-sharing program for St. Louis. West End Word, January 30 – February 5, 2008, pp. 8–9.

 

2. Jessica Daues, WUSTL, Enterprise Rent-A-Car offer car-sharing program. Record, January 17, 2008, p. 1.

 

3. Kavita Kumar, Car sharing makes its area debut. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 2008, p. B1.

 

4. Elisa Crouch, Hybrid car rental program comes to downtown St. Louis, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 12, 2008, p. C6.

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