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Synthesis/Regeneration 46   (Summer 2008)

Rethinking the Automobile

by Chris Bradshaw

"There's something odd about cities; we park on our driveways and drive on our parkways." - Anon.

The Kyoto Accord focused only on car emissions. The issues, however, are much broader. Since society provides shared rights-of-way but leaves car ownership to the individual, cars are too numerous, poorly utilized and larger than most trips require. In contrast, carsharing achieves greater walkability by changing car usage and design. Carsharing challenges us to envision a world without privately owned cars. And there are other options to explore as well. The following explores a vision of a possible future.

Why own a car?

Cities create wealth by bringing people together for social contact, transmittal of knowledge, invention and collaboration. They depend on macro transport linking them to resources and each other but require micro transport internally. The automobile is ill suited for either and is more practical for the rural living for which it was originally marketed.

Carsharing challenges us to envision a world without privately owned cars.

A Green Hierarchy matches transportation modes to appropriate trips for efficient utilization of space and resources. Shorter trips require small-footprint walking and cycling (Bradshaw 1992b). Longer trips, planned in advance, pool demand by using a common carrier (transit, train, bus, air). The expensive personal automobile is marketed as the mode encompassing all trips but is never the best mode for any specific trip type.

The expensive personal automobile is marketed as the mode encompassing all trips but is never the best mode for any specific trip type.

Despite these shortcomings, to drive without special arrangements you must own a car. This adds new responsibilities to your life: maintaining your car's home, paying insurance and knowing enough about how cars work to oversee maintenance and repairs. Government subsidies for health care, roads and oil resource protection cover some of the additional expenses owners do not pay. The largest cost is "free" parking included in the price of goods and services (Shoup 2005).

Alternatives to owning cars grow more impractical as distances increase. Rental is the most widespread alternative, but minimum rentals are 24 hours while 95% of drivers' trips are under 10 hours. Most people yield to the reality that ownership is the only practical choice as transit service declines while fares increase despite growing subsidies. Walking and cycling are degraded by their vulnerability to speeding cars. Advertising alludes to power and status more than utility and responsible use.


Carsharing is how we'd drive today if the car were initially like the telephone: rented, minimal and attached to the network it depended on. It's like car rental but allows access as brief as an hour. Storage locations are mostly within mixed-use downtown neighborhoods and rates include gas and insurance. Though mostly used for Single Occupant Vehicle (SOV) trips, its fare structure preempts daily commuting. Carsharing reduces peak demand on the roads and the need for parking. Over one million people worldwide use carsharing to replace their first or second car. It is the first form of access challenging car ownership itself.

People who carshare also use rentals for out-of-town trips and taxis for emergencies and one way trips. Ridesharing is used for commuting, potentially making ownership unnecessary. I call these four options (carsharing, ridesharing, rental and taxis) along with informal carsharing between friends, neighbors, etc., Metered Access to a Shared Car or MASC. I juxtapose it with what I call One-Person, One-Car Orientation or OPOCO.

Individual car ownership affects car use and choice

Lesson One: Practicality. There is nothing wrong with private ownership per se, but owning a car is neither practical nor necessary. We carry our cars around with us only because we might need them. MASC users' cars fit in a pocket: a key or electronic card gives them access, with a prior reservation, to a car whenever it is needed.

Lesson Two: Congestion. OPOCO drivers need more cars, greatly increasing traffic jams and full parking lots. Accordingly, planners oversize roads and lots at great expense to us and our environment. MASC allows cities to limit the number of vehicles to fit on people-friendly streets and achieve ideal density and usage. Shared fleets give just enough car access. Under MASC, peak hour driving is mostly ridesharing and citizens know that SOV use is expensive and discouraged. Outside peak hours, sharing is consecutive, rather than simultaneous. Congestion can occur where cars are accessed, rather than on the road with no way to adjust.

Lesson Three: Motivation. OPOCO is a feast or famine situation. You have more access than you need or you don't own a car and can't get access. Private cars are driven further to justify fixed costs (80-90% of all car expense including depreciation, financing, insurance, maintenance, garaging and registration fees). MASC users pay minimal fixed costs and are deterred from unnecessary driving because each trip requires reservations and two brief walks.

Lesson Four: Suitability. OPOCO forces people to choose one car fitting their trips for its entire lifetime. Therefore the vehicle is sized for atypical trips. Demand for 4-5 years is difficult to predict. "Where will I work? Will I be single? What sports will I pursue?" MASC users can pick the right vehicle for each trip, using delivery services when needed.

Lesson Five: Scrutiny. MASC vehicles are shared and their use is charged for. Therefore, availability and location are closely tracked, often with GPS devices. Access is provided only to drivers meeting higher standards than licensing requires. And, with a professional fleet operator, they are better maintained with the cost shared by 20-35 people per car.

Fixing car-related issues - Five Fs:

1. Far/Frequent. MASC users naturally relocate to neighborhoods with closer destinations and more useful modes. Without OPOCO's need to drive, half the driving disappears immediately and it continues to decline (Sheehan 2001, p. 123).

2. Fast. MASC encourages slower driving because (a) fleet owners scrutinize drivers, potentially using GPS-linked speed governors; (b) lower traffic congestion reduces speeding compensating for lost time; and (c) MASC makes slower Neighborhood Vehicles (NVs) feasible.

3. Frantic/Fazed. Aggressive, drowsy and distracted drivers are a factor in collisions and near misses. MASC drivers and owners are accountable and motivated to maintain an economical system. Drivers realize that fleet owners provide aid in keeping them alive and well.

4. Fat. OPOCO imposes larger, more powerful vehicles than MASC requires.

5. Filthy. MASC fleets purchase newer, cleaner technologies quickly and phase out old vehicles before they get inefficient and dangerous. With higher maintenance standards and costs shared by more people, MASC introduces Green Taxes via pay-as-you-go insurance, road pricing, inhibiting bad driving, and keeping dangerous drivers off the road.

Improving walkability

1. Foot-Friendly Environment. With fewer cars, MASC restores street parking and crossable streets with two traffic lanes and two parking lanes as buffers. Corner "bulb-outs" reduce crossing distances and provide pedestrians a better view of traffic.

2. Moderating Weather. Narrower roads and fewer driveways increase foliage and pervious green surfaces, reducing toxic runoff and providing a cleaner walking surface.

Narrower roads and fewer driveways increase foliage and pervious green surfaces...

3. Vibrant Street Life. Local culture values walking and the informal socialization and communality of sidewalks, parks and public indoor spaces (lovingly described by William Whyte, 1990, and Ray Oldenburg, 1993). OPOCO hurts society's sharing of culture and common fates, turning public space into car corridors and isolating drivers from those around them. However, if people populate public areas on foot, they become the eyes for their neighborhood (Jacobs 1963), and activities increasing pedestrians and people using front yards inhibit traffic impacts further.

Introducing MASC hybrids: Car/ridesharing

City transport engineers advocate mass transit for peak traffic since it's cheaper than widening roads between tightly packed buildings. But peak hour buses driven only 20 hours are designed and priced for 110 hours a week. Suburban roads are built wider but not enough so at intersections for complex traffic phases and numerous lanes. Crossing distances are long for pedestrians. Mass transit serves commuters while people still use cars nearer home and for regional shopping centers. With low densities and cheap parking, suburban mass transit remains uneconomical, even with subsidies. Jobs downtown and at public campuses with transit-friendly conditions are only about 20% of the total. Therefore 80% of commuting jobs encourage dependence on personal cars.

The "hybrid" concept originated with the merging of two related plant forms retaining the strengths of both. Car companies don't own the word (creating "hybrid engines") but they do monopolize transportation in the suburbs. Will a billion-dollar light rail project reverse that control? Probably not. But better solutions cost taxpayers almost nothing and reduce personal transportation budgets more than half.

With low densities and cheap parking, suburban mass transit remains uneconomical...

MASC hybrids combine several travel modes. Car/ridesharing is a hybrid which can be easily implemented in the suburbs, carsharing itself being a hybrid combining rental with informal sharing as in "Can I borrow your car for a while?"

Campaigns to fight car dependency must integrate alternatives including walking, cycling, transit, rental, carsharing, ridesharing, taxi and delivery services. But these are poorly linked. Most people who mix and match quickly give up due to issues with winter, children or rigid schedules. If they buy a vehicle, they use it for almost every trip.

In Ottawa, Vrtucar's carsharing (700 members, 35 cars, 4-hour average trips) seldom includes commuting and is not available in suburbs. Ridesharing in Ottawa (1400 participants) covers commuting. US air quality legislation encourages ridesharing as employers and employees carpool where transit is impractical. Ridesharing also appeals to planners because it focuses on long rush hour trips. Except it isn't catching on. Besides problems matching hours with locations, you can't use a car during your 9-10 hour workday unless you drive your own. And there are issues with sharing costs and with schedule disruptions like holidays or sick days.

A car/ridesharing hybrid overcomes the shortcomings of both. It provides shared cars for workdays at business parks and evenings and weekends in residential neighborhoods. Ridesharing regularly shifts cars between two stations. Any member can carshare and/or rideshare. Car/ridesharing utilizes simultaneous sharing at peak hours and consecutive sharing otherwise. Widespread sharing reduces parking spaces by over 75% and eliminates road congestion.

How hybrid car/ridesharing can work

I am working on a demo project proposal for Ottawa's official plan reviewers at my own initiative. With five nodes linking several workplace-residential pairs, this requires 20 cars (5 locations, each linked to the other 4). Each business park welcomes four cars every morning for carsharing among several thousand employees during the day after commuter ridesharing brings them in. At the end of the business day, the cars are commuter rideshares again and, after passengers are dropped off and the car returned to its residential station, neighborhoods have four carshare vehicles for evening and weekend personal trips. Five business parks and five residential areas with sufficient vehicles for redundancy of choice.

I propose seven-passenger minivans which have extra seats to accommodate more riders. These are large and versatile enough to appeal to those with a small first car needing access to a vehicle for loads of people or goods (birthday parties, lumber, etc.). The program accommodates downtown residents who reverse commute with jobs in the suburbs and poor bus service opposing peak hour directions. And these cars add to suburban rideshares at the business parks. The program complements existing mass transit which doesn't serve suburb-to-suburb commutes in the first place and doesn't work as well as carsharing in reducing car ownership.

My plan initially requires government subsidies for revenue guarantees and support for workplace access to recruit participants. The cost of ridesharing by itself is competitive with standard transport passes (also subsidized) assuming four occupied seats out of seven. Individual carsharing use outside transit hours costs about $3 an hour ($3.60 Friday through weekend) plus a rate per mile for gas and insurance. Initial neighborhood locations are rented spaces on a main street near local shopping and ridesharing drivers' residences.

Action agenda to implement a unified system of MASC

To completely develop the potential of MASC, we can develop and integrate the following:

1. Car/ridesharing.

2. Car Ownership Assistance (COA). Car ownership responsibilities are onerous. A COA takes care of these and also does home transportation audits (HTAs) to help people use all modes more efficiently and understand location efficiency in decision making. Customers can offer their vehicle for carsharing on the COA's booking service.

3. U-Drive Taxis. Most taxi customers drive, so they save money if a valet moves shared cars from one user to the next using a folding electric bike or scooter to reach the next vehicle.

4. Micro Transit Vehicles. Riders save money by carsharing vehicles simultaneously, assigned by the system on a dashboard screen. This is like shared taxis/"limos" at long distance transit hubs except that participants drive. MASC providers know each user's route, accepting commitments by drivers seeking lower rates to pick others up along their route.

5. Rural MASC. Rural towns and regions too small for separate MASC modes can contract a shared fleet operator providing all MASC services including delivery. A five-passenger car is perfect for the small demand that small centers generate.

6. Car Insurance Reorientation. Pay-as-you-drive insurance, with each driver's rate reflecting their risk rating, will encourage carsharing at hotels linked to ecotourism.

7. MASC R&D. Integrated traffic management and trip planning software for a whole metropolitan area will improve traffic flow, shared vehicle access and downtime, reducing roads and parking. This advances intelligent highway information systems further than OPOCO permits.

8. Neighborhood and City Vehicles. Higher level governments dictate car and road design for safety reasons but this inhibits MASC experiments in designing pedestrian friendly local environments. For example, open cabin golf cart-styled vehicles are vulnerable in collisions with cars so senior governments won't allow them. Local government powers can be increased and constitutionally protected so that they can introduce revenue-neutral green taxes and share decision making with neighborhoods. Locally permitted MASC can favor particular vehicle types and lower speed limits until officials say, "Don't bring your car - we'll provide one if you need it while you're here."

9. Corner Store DePoTs (Delivery & Point of Transfer, Bradshaw, 1992) including: (a) postal stations with facilities to check mail before accepting it, (b) recycling areas reducing pick-up cost and improving sorting, (c) shared tool libraries and (d) prepared food. DePoTs let children help shop and offer teens local job opportunities. Seniors with corner lots can convert garages into DePoTs.

10. Rethink Streets. Return them to their slower, more convivial status of decades ago. The Dutch have some new ideas as well: (a) Complete Streets are main streets with balanced multi-modal uses; (b) Naked Streets drop all formal controls and segregation of modes; (c) Yield Streets (Duany et al. 2000) force drivers to share a lane with oncoming traffic, pulling over when passing; (d) Street Reclaiming (Engwicht 1999) urges people to extend their living areas into the streets; and (e) Side Lanes connect cul-de-sacs and crescents to make walking and cycling easier (Bradshaw 1999).

11. Incentives. Encourage MASC and infill by limiting parking and charging off-street parking providers through property tax surcharges. Under OPOCO, car owners and their employers try to recover car-related costs by pushing driving. But Transportation Reducing Development (TRD, Bradshaw, 1998) increases population and jobs and balances a neighborhood, reducing motor traffic by ensuring that more trips can be satisfied locally on foot.

12. Car Use & Ownership Institutes. To my knowledge, there is no government, university, or private center studying OPOCO and MASC options. Keith Bradsher (2003) is one of the few examining research on why people buy SUVs & minivans. Emotional needs in car use and ownership also need attention (Bradshaw 1997).

How likely is MASC?

I believe simple but profound shifts in car access are practical and will prevail based on my own experience as carshare user and provider and also on my household's extended use of three forms of MASC without owning a car. We use these for less than 5% of our trips and transit for maybe another 5%. The total cost of our transportation, including bicycles and extra shoes, averages only about $100 a month. The last car we owned traveled less than 50,000 miles over 10 years.

The global situation is very dire and the Third World is embracing an OPOCO which will introduce deeper transportation poverty than we experience here to the dense and vibrant cities of Africa, Asia and South America. Will MASC arise quickly enough to save the planet, local communities and our family and personal health? Or will it require public and private arm-twisting similar to that engaged in during the rise of OPOCO?

If you don't buy my MASC vision, I hope you at least think more about issues of car access and walking.

Chris Bradshaw is a retired municipal planning official who has been active in walking advocacy (a founder of Ottawalk) and carsharing entrepreneurship (founder of Vrtucar). A former leader in the Green Party of Canada, he lives "car-lite" in downtown Ottawa/Sandy Hill with his wife. Email: hearth@ties.ottawa.on.ca

S/R is grateful to Uncle Don B. Fanning for adapting an earlier version of this article.


Bradshaw, Chris (1992a) The Walk n Roll City, Second Car-Free Cities Conference, Toronto.

(1992b) The Green Transportation Hierarchy, for Greenprint and Ottawalk, www.ncf.ca/ip/community.associations/ottawalk/ pospap/gr_hier.txt
(1993) Creating and Using a Neighborhood Walkability Index, International Pedestrian Conference, Boulder, CO.
(1997) Using Our Feet to Reduce Our Footprint, Local Environment, v1 #2.
(1998) Travel-Reducing Development, ORSA Quarterly, v7 #2, Ottawa.
(1999) Remaking the Suburbs for All Seasons, ORSA Quarterly, v8 #2.

Bradsher, Keith (2003) High and mighty, p. 51.

Duany, Andres et al. (2000) Suburban nation, p. 204.

Engwicht, David (1999) Street reclaiming.

Jacobs, Jane (1963) The death & life of great American cities.

Nelson-Nygaard (2005) Carsharing: Where and how it succeeds, TCRP Report 108.

Oldenburg, Ray (1993) The great good place.

Sheehan, Susan (2001), UC Berkeley Transportation Center, UCTC #468.

Shoup, Donald (2005) The high cost of free parking, p. 6.

Whyte, William H. (1990) City: Rediscovering the center.

Starting places on the web: http://www.carsharing.net, http://www.vrtucar.com, http://www.ottawarideshare.com

[13 may 08]

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