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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Corporation and cooperation
March 6, 2012 - 3:30pm

This morning, I happened to hear a story on NPR about peer-to-peer car-sharing. Folks (those mentioned in the story were university students) become members of an organization. Some join to be able to rent privately-owned cars on an hourly basis, others to make their personal vehicles available in return for up to 60% of rental fees. The central organization (company) takes care of member screening (for credit-worthiness, a clean driving record, etc.) and all the administrative overhead.

The immediate appeal of this arrangement to my mind was that it offers a model of product demand reduction.  Indeed, the lead-in to the story talks about how Washington DC has grown by 40,000 people without adding any cars at all.

But the longer-term value of such an arrangement is that it reshapes people's thinking about how they get the goods and services they want and need. In a culture where even the degree of reuse inherent in buying a used car is déclassé, the idea that someone might intentionally not buy a car (especially if it implies depending on other people to make their cars available) is downright radical.

Of course, peer-to-peer car-sharing requires a certain degree of population density to be practicable. For most folks, if using your neighbor's car means first walking 2 miles to your neighbor's house that's somewhat unappealing. And if there's only a single vehicle you can use within a walkable radius, the reduced likelihood that it's available right when you want it is probably off-putting.  So high-density locations like university campuses and Washington DC are where early adopters are likely to live.

Which raises the issue of suburban sprawl, of course. US residential land use patterns and individual car (sometimes, multi-car) ownership are functionally and historically joined at the hip. The chance to become a peer-to-peer car-sharer advantages city- (or at least town-) dwellers over exurbanites but, in truth, it's probably the least compelling such advantage. Some people may move "back into the city" in order to be able to thrive without a car, but it seems more likely that people who want to move back into the city anyway will use the cost savings inherent in zero-car-ownership as an enabling rationale.  Other justifications such as availability of services, shorter commutes to work, better infrastructure and access to arts venues all seem more likely to convince.

Of course, any time an additional advantage can get added to the list of reasons for folks to live in a city, it's reason for celebration. US society (including the US domestic economy) can't ever become sustainable so long as people move farther and farther out to live in larger and larger houses on larger and larger lots. Like any system, the American way of residence becomes less and less efficient as its moving parts get more dispersed and more diffuse.  Peer-to-peer car-sharing, by itself, isn't going to reverse the suburbanization trend, but at least it's a glance in the right direction.

What may also be a glance in the right direction is that some surprising funders are involved in promoting car-sharing companies. Bill Ford. GM Ventures. Folks closely associated with the very car makers who helped promote (and clearly benefited from) the suburbanization trend in the first place.  I'm not seeing this still fairly minor involvement as proof of any sea change -- it strikes me as far more likely to be either a short-term play in a nascent industry they think they understand or (more likely) an acknowledgement that as vehicles get more sophisticated and more expensive, some alternative ownership model will be required to sustain demand at ever-increasing dollar (if not vehicle number) volumes. Still, a glance.

Is this a trend universities can, should, and should want to help promote? I have to think that it is. Decreasing the number of vehicles which get driven to and on campus offers a number of advantages; reducing greenhouse gas emissions is only one of them.  For many campuses, the opportunity cost of using desirable land to park cars is high. Certainly far higher that the cost of enabling -- perhaps even promoting -- some sort of car-sharing arrangement. 

And, who knows? Perhaps even students from families in the suburbs, after living for four or more years without a dedicated personal vehicle nearby, might decide that the cost and the hassle of car ownership are avoidable. They might accelerate the trend toward smart re-urbanization. And a glance in the right direction might, in time, become a steady gaze.



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