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Don't buy, rent
June 30, 2008 - 1:29pm

Thanks to a correspondent for putting me onto this story. Feel free to share anything even vaguely similar. Or different.

Ithaca, New York might be described as a prototypical university town. Cornell University on one hill, Ithaca College on another, lots of liberal voters in the middle of relatively conservative upstate New York. I'm told that it's sometimes defined as "ten square miles surrounded by reality."

However, some of the folks in Ithaca may have a pretty firm grasp on new social realities. A group of local families have started Ithaca Carshare, a non-profit vehicle sharing organization, with start-up funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency. As I understand it, families pay a fee to join (some of that may be offset with funding from Cornell and IC), and then rent co-op cars on an as-needed basis for rates as low as $5.00 per hour. The co-op pool is starting with seven passenger cars (mixed sizes and styles, I'm sure), and one pickup truck.

The logistical details will, I'm sure, take a while to smooth out. But the concept is certainly attractive for families who live where they can walk to many locations, and take public/campus transit to others. From a personal perspective, the primary attractor is probably cost savings -- it would take a lot of $5.00 rental hours to add up to a typical new car monthly lease payment. Why buy, if you don't need to?

From a sustainability perspective, the advantages are many. Fewer vehicles manufactured means less consumption of resources including, but not limited to, embedded energy. Putting a per-use cost on vehicles will decrease driving, as will even minimal inconvenience -- frivolous trips will probably be pretty much eliminated. And then there's the community thing.

Bit of an aside here. I live on a small farm. I don't own a tractor. When I need a tractor, I rent one -- generally, for a week at a time. Not owning a tractor means that those chores I can do without burning diesel fuel, I do. There's no temptation to make the job easier by bringing a tractor out of the shed when it's not really needed. The real reason I do it is cost savings -- a week's rental every year or so is a lot less than the cost of buying. Still, the ecological benefits are real, as my fossil fuel consumption is reduced.

In a sense, I'm sharing that tractor with a bunch of people, each of whom rents it from a locally-owned business. But renting the tractor doesn't help me get to know those people. I know the local businessman, but then I already knew him, anyway. He has a list of approved rental clients, but the people on that list don't constitute a "community" in any sense.

I suspect that the experience of Ithaca Carshare members will be different. By sharing a limited pool of resources on a frequent and recurrent basis, I suspect they'll get to know each other (if they don't already). The first time one member's kid leaves a toy on the floor of the back seat and another member calls to say (s)he's got it, community will start to form.

Cornell and Ithaca College are encouraging some of their employees to join Ithaca Carshare. Who knows, once these folks start sharing one expensive resource, maybe a trend will develop. And even if that doesn't happen, NYSERDA is apparently hoping that the program will serve as an example to other communities, and other campuses.


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