Friday, August 19, 2005

A legitimate role for car sharing schemes

There has been some recent debate about whether car-sharing schemes should be included on the proposed public transport smartcard. I won't discuss this here, but will instead go into the merits and limitations of car sharing and its likely effect on public transport.

The space for car sharing exists because there is currently a large gap between people's transport choices. For most people, and excluding taxis and hire cars, these boil down to:

(i) No car, use of public transport, walking and cycling only

(ii) full-time car ownership only, or

(iii) Full-time car ownership plus some public transport use

Because of the high fixed costs of car ownership, (iii) is little cheaper than (ii), at least unless petrol prices double or treble. (i) is an option most wouldn't accept.

Car sharing adds another choice to the mix, and unlike full-time car ownership, I believe it is likely to be favourable to public transport. It also makes a useful distinction between car ownership and use and encourages participants to use the right travel mode for the job rather than automatically reaching for the car keys.

Car sharing is a niche market ideal for singles, couples (particuarly childless) and the retired. It is most suitable in suburbs where public transport is good and access to a shared car is a reasonable alternative to universal car ownership.

What sort of trips would car sharers use vehicles for? I would anticipate these would be specialised trips that public transport does not efficiently serve and is unlikely to do so, even with substantial service improvements. These include some forms of bulky goods shopping, one-off home renovation work, many country trips and possibly late night travel.

Though those 'difficult' trips could only be 20% of a person's total number of trips (the rest being commuting or shopping where public transport is convenient), use of car alternatives is so impractical that the need to make such trips is a key inducement to car purchase. Once the decision to bbuy a car has been made (including acceptance of the fixed financial costs) there may be a temptation to use it more, even for some trips that were previously done by public transport.

In some circles there may be concern that car sharing may reduce public transport patronage and thus should be discouraged. In third world countries this is a high risk as car owneship is low. However where car ownership is already high, such an effect will be marginal as few of the abovementioned 'difficult' trips are made on public transport anyway.

In any Australian city, the most likely outcome is a small reduction in single-owner car trips and a slight shift to public transport, walking and cycling. This is because although people have access to a car when needed, it's not quite as easy as grabbing the keys and walking 20 steps to the garage. Chances are the local tram stop will be as closer than the carshare depot and the former is the mode that will be chosen for more trips.

Environmentally, an average of 0.25 (or even 0.5) cars per adult (participating in a car sharing scheme) is an improvement over one car each. Walking/cycling/public transport supplemented by easy access to a shared car could lower transport energy use per capita compared to currently available choices. Car sharing is certainly superior to the so-called 'green' car loans, which are more spin than substance as they do nothing for car-dependence, resource economy, urban amenity, congestion, parking or indeed financial wellbeing.

Shared car ownership challenges many existing attitudes to various transport modes by providing a 'middle way' that may be attractive to many. It breaks down the current tight link between car use and car access and the traffic engineers assumption of universal (full-time) car ownership. Also, because participants of car sharing schemes are likely to use public transport for many trips, it breaks the stereotype of the latter as being a residual welfare services and makes it more a mode of choice.

In local planning car sharing could dismantle the doctrine that houses (and shops) should have a minimum number of parking spots. This has good planning and amenity implications and breaks down the 'concrete jungle' as the need to provide for parking and car traffic is the number one cause of urban blight and pedestrian and transit-hostile local centres.

Though not a substitute for good public transport and unlikely to appeal to a large market, car sharing has a niche role that should be recognised and encouraged.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Passenger information old, new and improvised

1. Something old

The side of a tram shelter showing a clear tram map. These maps are examples of detailed yet easy to read passenger information.

2. Something improvised (but better than nothing)

A timetable at a Glenhuntly Road bus stop.

3. Something new

Through the local papers Metlink has started advertising that pocket travel guides will shortly appear in letter boxes.