One of the biggest obstacles to sustainability is car culture. Our whole geography is engineered for the car, and in many places it is hard to get around without one. They’re also important culturally. Cars are status symbols and a source of pride and satisfaction. And certainly in Britain, learning to drive is as close as we get to a coming of age ritual.
Unfortunately, the whole idea of private cars as a main form of transportation is a bad one. That’s because most cars are parked up most of the time, meaning there is always vast underused transport capacity. You may be in a city and have somewhere to go, and be surrounded by thousands of parked cars, none of which are any good to you because they’re not yours.
Even when in use, cars generally have four or five seats, but rarely run full. 61% of car journeys in Britain are single occupancy. Cars are a poor solution to our travel needs even before we get to the efficiency of internal combustion engines, or the vast land and infrastructure requirements.
Since cars is what we have, one intermediate solution is car sharing. What most of us need, after all, is access to a car. We don’t necessarily need to own it, and given the depreciation rates and maintenance costs, being able to just use one when we need it might even be preferable if we can get over our acquisitional instincts.
In their primer on sharing in cities, Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Centre outline a number of policies for encouraging lift sharing and car sharing schemes.
- Free or designated parking for car sharing. The easier it is to find a shared car, the more likely it is that people will use it. There’s a Zipcar round the corner from my office in London. It has its own on street parking spot, and there are many others around the city. Washington DC auctioned parking spaces to car sharing companies, making easy car hiring visible and accessible and generating income for the city at the same time.
- Build in car sharing to new developments. When creating new housing developments, the usual format where I live is to assume two car spaces for each house, usually at the expense of garden space. You might have trouble selling new homes with no parking at all, but how about one car parking space and a car sharing spot in a prominent place on the street? Residents would be able to give up the second car.
- Car sharing lanes. In congested areas, High Occupancy Lanes (HOV) on roads can encourage more people to travel together. This is fairly rare in Britain, but Leeds and Bristol have experimented with them. Lower toll rates for full cars is a similar principle. Where you have HOV lanes that make journeys quicker, it’s in the interests of drivers to pick up a couple of people. Shareable suggest designated pick-up spots along commuting routes, where people can gather and get a ride.
- Park and ride for cars. This is a smart idea I hadn’t come across before. How about drivers meeting at a certain point, parking and consolidating into fewer cars for the busiest part of the journey? I can imagine this working in London for those commuting in from satellite towns. Shareable point out that you wouldn’t need to create new parking facilities to do this if you used car parks that are underused on week days, like churches.
- Guarantee a ride home. One of the things that stops people from sharing a lift to work is that if they need to leave early for an emergency or a special occasion, they won’t have a ride. Several US cities have found a way round this. If you carpool, cycle, walk or take public transport to work at least three times a week, you are entitled to a certain number of free taxi rides home every year. In Minneapolis it’s four a year, five in Atlanta. It just gives people peace of mind and confidence to leave their own car at home and know they could still make a quick getaway if they need to.
For lots more ideas on sharing transport, as well as food, jobs and housing, download Policies for Shareable Cities.