Shifting view of car ownership driving younger users to car sharing


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, 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.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

17 thoughts on “Shifting view of car ownership driving younger users to car sharing”

  1. Bah humbug.  Wake me when these huge numbers of “younger” people are still using car share exclusively when they’re in their 30s and have kids.  The vast majority of them will have moved to the burbs and bought a car by then.

    1. Well, Julie Dworkin is quoted in the article. She lives across the street from me with her husband and and two small children. They get by fine without owning a car, and they’re one of about a dozen car-free families with young kids that I’m friendly with in Logan Square. As gas gets more expensive, and car sharing and kid-carrying cargo bikes get more popular, the suburban car-bound lifestyle is only going to get less attractive, and I think we’ll see a lot more car-free urban families with kids.

      1. The biggest problem would be using kiddie seats. They’re a pain to install and many are designed with a “permanently” installed bas and a travelling cradle. I think that would make car sharing more difficult for people with little kids. 

    2. I know several urban families that are ZipCar familes.  They live in the city and have one car, but use Zip car to supplement.  They couldn’t do that nearly as easily in the suburbs.

      And I’m nearly 40, have an above-average income, live in the city car-free and use ZipCar.

      The majority may still opt for the suburbs, but plenty of smart people who prefer urban living will choose to stay.

    3. I’m sure that many families will want to own one car, particularly in the suburbs. The question is, will those families want to own two?

      I’m pretty sure our two-person, two-driver household in the suburbs could swing a one-car existence if we had to do it. (The lack of bicycle shops our here is the major drawback.) 

      But I would consider a ZipCar and our “real” car. Whether ZipCar would come out here depends on how many drivers need cars at different times of the day, though. The common car usage is “leave home at 7, get back at 6” and car sharing wouldn’t help those folks at all.

      1. I’m curious as to what analysis car sharing companies have done about entering suburban areas (i.e. low density places). Without density, then the customer base is spread out. How does one access the car? On a bike, on the bus, by walking?

        1. iGo seems to have made it as far as… Forest Park. Not bad.

          ZipCar has two cars at North Central College, and two at Elmhurst College. (They also have two at Valparaiso University and three at Notre Dame, which I didn’t know until I just checked.)

          Solely based on intuition, I think that the expenses of a car will be a bigger problem in the poorer exurbs than the mature suburbs.

  2. I have to question (you knew I would) whether car-sharing really encourages a more sustainable, more eco-friendly lifestyle. I can see how it might be cheaper than owning a car, but I don’t necessarily see how that translates to fewer miles driven by the populace at large.

    Take my situation. I own a car, but I hardly ever drive it in the city. The only time I drive in the city is when I go to the grocery store, about once every two weeks, or when I go someplace outdoorsy like Indiana Dunes or the I&M Canal Trail or something like that.

    So, let’s say I don’t own a car, and I join Zipcar for shopping trips and the weekend jaunts to semi-natural places. I’m still driving the exact same number of miles. Maybe I’m driving a more efficient car (though for me specifically that wouldn’t be the case, as my car’s as efficient as the Priuses you usually see in car-sharing programs), but otherwise the environmental impact is exactly the same.

    So, then … do car sharing programs actually reduce the number of cars on the road at any given time, or do they just mean that fewer cars are driven more miles, for a net change of zero? Even worse, could the relative cheapness of car-sharing programs vs. owning a car actually encourage people to drive who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it? Could these programs actually transform CTA miles to car miles?

    1. The environmental impact is more long-term. By going this route, you’ve reduced the overall number of cars needed to support overall demand by one… which (eventually) means one less car that needs to be built in a factory somewhere.

      If a second, or third, or fourth family utilizes a car this way, now it’s 2, 3 or 4 less cars on the street in the long term. I think that’s good news! (It also represents the risk that Morgan Stanley took for the parking-meter lease; at the extreme, what if the residents of Chicago overall just don’t need to park in the future? What if in 15 years self-driving ZipCars can park themselves in free lots when they’re not being used, or ZipCar-owned parking structures?)

      As for transitioning from no car to a ZipCar… that’s an interesting thought, but I still think it’s a good thing. Maybe someone can afford to get to a better job, faster, using a ZipCar. Although at $72 / day, I think CTA + bike would still win out for most of the people in this income range.

    2.  You have a good point but don’t the resources saved from making one car instead of two count for something?  Doesn’t the space saved to park one car instead of two count for something?  Can’t the fixed costs of car ownership and the resources needed to cover them be better spent elsewhere?

      1. We went from one car to two a few years ago.  With my husband’s work schedule and location, a transit commute is not a realistic option for him.  I sometimes use his car when he’s not working.  Otherwise, I usually use walking, biking and public transit to get around most of the time, supplemented by an occasional I-Go trip.

        This has freed me of the fixed costs of car ownership (license plates, city sticker, insurance) as well as the time and money I used to spend getting gas and taking the car for routine maintenance.  It’s also freed up a lot of space in the garage.  Once in a while I end up NOT making a trip because none of the available options are viable.  Most of the time I do not miss the second car.  And this saves us a nice chunk of money every year.

    3. It does take energy to manufacture a car…

      I’m sure some car sharing use is in place of transit, traditional car rentals, biking and taxis and getting rides from friends and family.  Of course if it means that a person uses car sharing in place of owning  a car then they probably will not drive merely as many miles.  Last Sunday I went to Beverly from Lincoln Square.  Transit takes about 1.5 hours.  Driving probably a third of that.  If I had a car I would of drove, instead I biked and used the Red Line.  Given that Igo would of been about $90 I didn’t consider that an option.

      1. When I go from Beverly to north side destinations, I find that the car travel time varies a lot, depending on day of the week, time of day and any festivals or construction.  In the daytime, on a transit-only or bike-transit trip, I can get to most north side destinations in an hour.  At night, with less frequent transit runs and longer waits for connections, a 1.5 hr trip is more common.  If I won’t be gone all day, I sometimes opt for I-Go, depending on the nature of the trip. More often, I choose a transit-only or bike-transit trip and use the extra time for reading and email.  

        I *do* factor other activities into the travel time equation.  It’s not strictly a $ decision if the transit time will allow me to do other things I couldn’t do while driving.

    4. Well, car sharing services generally charge by the hour and the mile driven, so the they generally aren’t practical for driving long distances for day trips like the Indian Dunes (which are easy to access via the South Shore Line train, BTW.) Instead, they’re geared towards short errands. When you own a car, there are fixed costs like insurance, city sticker, maybe a parking spot, etc., so in some ways you get more for your money if you’re using the car more often than just every now and then. With car sharing, you’re paying for every trip, and if you’re driving far or keeping the car for a long time, it’s not cheap. So if you’re using car sharing rather than owning a private car, you’re more likely to think twice about making unnecessary car trips.

      1. Indiana Dunes isn’t as easily accessible by the South Shore as I’d like, though it would be if they weren’t such morons about taking bikes on the train.

        And this inspired me to look up the amount of energy it takes to make a car. According to numbers from Toyota (as reported on one of those type sites), it take 6.6MMBTUs to make one car. That’s the equivalent of about 53 gallons of gas. So each car kept off the road represents about 5 tanks in my Honda, or 2,000 miles. Which I will use up this weekend driving out of town. Have a good one, all.

  3. I think that Beverly is fairly comparable to a lot of suburban areas in terms of density.  I don’t know everyone else who uses our one I-Go car.  I do know that at least some of them access it by walking or bike.  Since our location is at a park, there is bike parking for several bikes within 50 feet of the I-Go parking spot.

    Bus access isn’t convenient unless you’re coming from outside the neighborhood and arriving on the 95th St. bus.

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