Car sharing worsens urban traffic woes

Car sharing is becoming increasingly popular around the world, in part because it is often acclaimed as a more environmentally friendly alternative to owning a car. But a recently released study argues that car sharing actually aggravates traffic in urban areas such as Berlin, reports Elana Caro.

Berlin Car2Go

The promised benefits of car sharing programmes in Germany such as Car2go from Daimler or DriveNow from BMW are under the microscope in a new study from Civity, a consultancy firm that focuses on public services in Europe. Rather than ameliorating traffic in urban areas, the study found that car sharing is used instead of more environmentally friendly means of transportation such as bicycles and public transport.

Car sharing “is a hype”, Stefan Weigele, co-founder of Civity and creator of the study “Urban mobility in transition?” told Der Spiegel, because it contributes to more traffic rather than less on urban streets.

Vehicles not used for up to 23 hours

The study, which focused on Berlin, found for instance that car sharing vehicles are used most often for short distances in Berlin, on average 5.8 kilometres – trips that could easily be completed without a car.

The study also debunks the myth that privately-owned vehicles are more stationary that car sharing ones. In fact, car sharing vehicles are used for only 62 minutes per day in Berlin, which means they spend close to 23 hours unused and parked in public spaces. Although privately-owned vehicles are only used on average for 36 minutes per day, the amount that shared vehicles are used is significantly lower than a taxi (average 227 minutes) and bus (average 630 minutes).

The study also found that peak demand for car sharing vehicles in Berlin tends to be in after work traffic and for leisure travel, which indicates that the traditional commuter does not use car sharing, Weigele tells Der Spiegel.

Good public transport is the key

For the study authors, the conclusions are simple and the solutions readily available: Cities should expand and improve their public transport systems and put more priority on developing bicycle lanes and pedestrian routes to ameliorate urban traffic, reports Der Spiegel.

The authors have found support on this last point from Friederike Hülsmann at the Öko Institute, who conducted a report on car sharing on behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Environment. She told Der Spiegel that there is no way of getting around public transport if we want to genuinely foster environmentally friendly transport behaviour.

Flawed figures

It should come as no surprise that car sharing providers strongly contest Civity’s findings. Andreas Leo from Car2go said their vehicles travel on average a minimum of 150 minutes per day, more than double Civity’s estimates.

One reason for the difference in figures is that Civity did not actually cooperate with the car sharing providers to produce its study. Instead the researchers spent one year collecting figures from the providers’ website, using an algorithm that recorded on a half hour basis if, where and for hour long the vehicles were being used, explains Der Spiegel.

The study also comes under fire from the German Car Sharing Association (bcs), which estimates that one car sharing vehicle can replace up to ten privately-owned cars. “You cannot infer general driving behaviour solely from the number of minutes used,” explains Willi Loose, president of bcs.

Exploring other alternatives

The study play an important role in changing the discussions around transport and mobility. As Hülsmann from the Öko Institute frames it, it allows us to move away from the car-ownership/car-sharing dichotomy by giving us space to explore other alternatives. “Giving up car ownership no longer means that you are restricted in your mobility,” quotes Der Spiegel.

But she also criticises the study for being incomplete. By focusing solely on car sharing statistics, it fails to look at whether people using car sharing programmes changed their transport behaviour or if they continued to use bicycles or public transport for regular routes, only resorting to car sharing for those out-of-reach or difficult-to-transport-otherwise destinations.


Photo courtesy of Daimler

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