I-GO member Angel Collazo. Photo by Kimiteru Tsuruta
This post was contributed by Kimiteru Tsuruta, a grad student at Nortwestern’s Medill Journalism School. During his time in Tokyo, Tsurata was amazed by the efficiency and coverage of its public transit system. He has a B.A. in economics from the University of California, Irvine, and now covers Chicago’s transportation news with the Medill News Service. This piece originally appeared on Medill Reports.
Practicality and economics may be the main reasons increasing numbers of people use car-sharing services, but there also seems to be an underlying shift in how young people perceive car ownership.
“Car-sharing members tend to have attitude,” said Joseph Schwieterman, professor of public service and director of the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University. “They see their lifestyle choices not only as a matter of just convenience, but as a rejection of the notion that a privately owned vehicle is important.”
Chicagoan Julie Dworkin seems to confirm that notion. “I used to own a car, but I don’t plan on buying a car again,” said Dworkin, who turned to car sharing when she decided the daily hassles of owning a car in Chicago were not worth it.
Car sharing has grown dramatically in little more than a decade, from a mere 422 members in 2000 to 518,520 in 2011, according to a DePaul University study. Growth appears to be largely driven by younger users, some of whom look at cars differently from their parents.
Outside I-GO’s headquarters at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Wicker Park. Photo by Tsuruta
Younger people are starting to perceive cars as a utility rather than as a status symbol, said Annie Bourdon, who helped launch San Francisco’s City CarShare in 2000 and is the founder of CarShare Vermont.
“It is probably the case that young urban dwellers who car share place less emphasis on cars as a status symbol,” said Mimi Sheller, professor of sociology and director of the Mobilities Research and Policy Center at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Young people are more interested in creating a self-image based around what they do, than what they own.”
Furthermore, car sharing along with riding a bike or walking make it easier and more flexible to meet up with people and take part in activities around the city, Sheller said. Car sharing seems to have a “cool” appeal, an image that younger people want to be associated with. “Many are proud to be seen in a car with a car-share organization’s logo affixed to the front door,” said Schwieterman. “There is a clear vibe.”
However, coolness alone can’t be the only motivation for someone to opt for car sharing, said Bourdon, who is trying to get more residents of Burlington, Vt., to enroll in the service. “One of the things that we emphasize is that sharing is fun and a cool thing to do,” said Bourdon. “But there has to be a real tangible personal benefit like saving $300 a month.”
I-GO and Zipcar spots peacefully coexist. Photo by Tsuruta
Adding to the coolness factor is the technology involved in car-sharing services. Most members get real-time availability and make their reservations online through their computers or smartphones. “Conversely, we are seeing that digital technology is rising as attachment to personal vehicles may be diminishing,” said Alice Bieszczat, research associate at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. “Having that latest iPhone is more of a status symbol than having the latest model of a vehicle.”
With the integration of technology, car-sharing services allow members to get around in a car without missing a beat. “I like the service. It’s simple. I just made my reservation from my phone 10 minutes ago,” said Angel Collazo, an I-GO Car Sharing member for the past two years, as he flashed his cellphone while walking up to his reserved vehicle.
Besides the coolness factor, people are car sharing because it reflects and matches some of their lifestyles and values. “Most car sharers see themselves as a broader part of an environmental movement,” said Schwieterman.
The idea of sustainable transportation appeals to car share members like John Ruess, a manager at Starbucks and Zipcar member for the past four years. “Feels good to not bring another car into this world,” said Ruess, who said he strives to live an ecologically and socially responsible lifestyle, and likes how one car can serve a lot of people.
An idea of “collective consumerism” in which people share things instead of buying them has become more popular for big ticket items like cars, because people are realizing the benefits of borrowing are greater than actually owning them, said DePaul’s Bieszczat.
Outside a Zipcar members party at Goose Island brewpub. Photo by David Eldridge
“Some are excited with the concept of sharing with their neighbors,” Bourdon said about the feedback she has received from her members.
“Car sharing fits into the recent rise of ‘shareable culture,’ co-working spaces, and locally based economies in which younger people, especially, are trying to own less stuff, to live more sustainably, and to promote community-based initiatives that rely more on sharing things with others,“ said Drexel University’s Sheller.
While car sharing literally brings people in the community closer as they share a single resource, users are expected to follow certain rules and etiquette to keep the sharing experience a pleasant one for everyone. “Some people don’t, but I try to,” Collazo said about returing the car on time and with more than a quarter tank of gas.
Many young urban dwellers prefer to share rather than buy cars
- Chicago’s one of the leading cities for car sharing growth, and follows a similar pattern with the rest of the U.S.
- Car ownership in Chicago can cost an average of about $7,500 annually.
- About 68 percent of car share members in the U.S. are between 20-40 years old, 85 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher and the average income is between $40,000 to $60,000.
Car sharing adds to sense of community
In addition to reducing cars on the street, car sharing can physically bring individuals closer as it encourages more social forms of transportation, like walking, riding a bicycle and using public transit.
“If you’re walking to get around, you’re more likely to shop in your neighborhood and support local businesses rather than big box stores,” said John Greenfield, co-founder of gridchicago.com, a website dedicated to sustainable transportation in Chicago. “And you’re more likely to run into your friends and neighbors when you’re getting around on foot, by bicycle or on transit.”
Studies have shown that over time car sharers tend to drive less and opt for more active forms of transportation, like biking and walking.
“They [members] figure out how to be really smart about when to use a car,” said Sharon Feigon, CEO of I-GO Car Sharing. “They’ve gotten all these experiences walking, using transit, so they realize that it’s not a big deal. ‘I could walk two more blocks. Why get a car?’”
I-GO participates in the Chicago Pride Parade. Photo courtesy of I-GO Cars.
The pay-per-use business model of the service also tends to make car share users more cost conscious, using the service only when necessary and being more efficient on their trips.
“I’m not the best planner, but I try to be efficient,” said John Ruess, a manager at Starbucks and Zipcar member for the past four years. Ruess said car sharing has made him plan better for his errands.
It is estimated that car sharing has removed between 90,000 to 130,000 vehicles from the road in North America, according to a study by the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The biggest predictor of how much you drive is whether or not you own a car,” said Feigon, “You have to eliminate the car in order to change the behavior.”