Willi Loose: CarSharing: Integral component of German mobility

Car sharing was once restricted to a small group of ecologically motivated persons. Nowadays, everyone is talking about the principle of “using rather than owning” vehicles. At the beginning of 2014, over 750,000 drivers made use of the ­services of approximately 150 CarSharing providers.

For more than 25 years, the classical station-based CarSharing has been developing in more than 400 German cities and communities. The providers are often small and medium-sized CarSharing companies located in major cities that present a constant and demand-oriented growth. These providers economise efficiently and the annual surpluses are invested in further growth in supply. In various regions, the metropolitan providers are expanding gradually to the surrounding communities of their core cities. Doing so, they ensure the expansion of CarSharing services, even to areas where economic efficiency is harder to achieve. Away from the metropolitan regions, small and mostly voluntarily managed CarSharing societies, and occasionally individual companies ­­ensure that CarSharing ser­­vices are provided. All these services are aiming to sup­­plement the CarSharing principle to the means of transport of the EcoMobility concept (bus & train, bicycle, walking as well as taxis, hired cars among others). A num­­ber of CarSharing providers cooperate consistently with the local transportation companies and offer regular cus­­tomers of public transport discounts on CarShar­ing ser­­vices. In turn, the transportation companies of­­­fer sup­­port in marketing and sales of the CarSharing services.

Station-based CarSharing services can be booked a long time in advance. In this way, they provide the reliability that the CarSharing vehicle will be at the desired place at the desired time. The downside is that a certain predictability is required. Furthermore, after using the vehicle it has to be brought back to the chosen CarShar­­ing station in order to be at disposal for the next customer. The fare structure of this service is de­­signed for short distances in the city as well as for longer journeys over the weekend and even vacation trips. In any case, these tariffs are reducing the mo­­bility budget compared to the costs of an own (new) car, provided that no more than 10,000 to 12,000 kilo­­metres a year are travelled and the car is not used daily. In this way, the CarSharing service replaces the own car for many users but without restricting their mobility. Apart from the cost reductions in the personal budget, this relief of tiresome obligations contributes to the satisfaction of the CarSharing users.

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Station-independent CarSharing, so called free floating, supplements the supply in some metropolitan areas. Since 2011, subsidiaries of some car companies offer­ a new station-independent CarSharing pro­­duct. With this new concept, they now reach a mass au­­dience in seven Ger­­man major cities. What is new in this service is that ve­­hi­­cles are no longer bound to a fixed station network. After reaching his or her destination, the customer parks the ve­­hicle at the roadside within a business area that has been defined beforehand. The next customer can then lo­­calise these va­cant vehicles usually with an app on his or her smartphone. The simple usage even allows one-way trips within the defined business area.

Three features shape the offers and determine the pre­dominant usage patterns which differ greatly from station-based CarSharing: The usage without prior reservation of the vehicle allows on the one hand very spontaneous decisions for such a service. On the other hand, the fact that it is not possible to book in advance brings along a certain uncertainty about whether there is actually a vacant vehicle available to the user at the desired time. The relatively high minute-based user fees are oriented towards short periods of use and therefore short distances within the defined business area. Longer distances and periods of use cause significantly higher costs compared to station-based CarSharing.

The services are initially launched with a large number of cars. This service had, indeed, gained a high number of users in a short time due to its facili­­tated ac­­ces­­sibility; however, the providers have not yet crossed the economic viability threshold for the total offer in Germany. Three comprehensive evaluation projects are currently clarifying the questions wheth­­er the very comfortable access to cars causes, in the before and after comparison, an elevated us­­age of cars, whether a trip with the station-independent CarSharing service affects the public transport and bicycle and, therefore, whether these kinds of services bring along a positive effect at the end of the day.

The platforms of private car sharing. In another version, private car sharing or peer-to-peer CarSharing, the vehicles of private car owners are made available to others on online platforms. This concept’s structure rather resembles a car rental company from private to private individual and is oriented more towards ex­ceptional single occasions than everyday mobility.

By now, CarSharing has become a fixed part of German mobility, with a constantly growing number of users and a continuously growing coverage.

Born in 1952, the author is CEO of the Bundesverband CarSharing Society (bcs) since 2006 and author of several relevant publications. Before that, he, a quali­­fied teacher, was research fellow and head of the transport projects at the Institute for Applied Ecology (Ökö-Institut e.V.) in Freiburg.