Preferred Shares: Vancouver public car services

Public car services shed light on how the city moves,and something more on how we divvy up our belongings

January 1, 2014

By John Burns

No one sees the city quite like David Holzer. We’re in the Milano café on Powell, in a sea of young Gastowners envisioning a brighter tomorrow — the perfect backdrop for a movie the -Car2Go Canada manager is running on his travel-battered ThinkPad. Across a map of Vancouver zoom tiny dots representing the two-seaters owned by the car-sharing company. As the hours time-lapse by, the dots zip every which way — each an actual trip taken by one of 44,000 local members.

When Car2Go opened here in June 2011, the fourth city in three years (after Ulm and Hamburg, Germany, and Austin, Texas), its fleet was small and hurdles high. A mail strike delayed prelaunch marketing material, and Stanley Cup rioters crumpled one of its 220 new Smart Fortwo vehicles; another was set on fire. Yet the notion of sharing rather than buying a car has caught on: the Vancouver fleet has grown to 550. (Worldwide, Holzer says a Car2Go is booked every 2.5 seconds across 25 cities.)

“Vancouver is definitely one of our success stories,” Holzer affirms as we watch another data set come to life. Within the noise, what he notices is distribution: some cities have narrower corridors, in part because of where shared cars are allowed to park. In Vancouver, all three services (the others are the Modo co-op, and Avis-owned Zipcar) pay between $300 and $1,320 for each dedicated curbside spot, and the city encourages sharing by allowing members to park on many restricted residential streets. Trips crisscross the city, often skipping downtown; in Calgary, by contrast, the suburbs converge on the business district, then flee again come afternoon.

In Vancouver, peak demand is for a 25-minute one-way trip between 3 and 9 p.m., with the morning commute a distant second. Cars go out on average seven or eight times a day. (Friday is king.) Hubs are noticeable on this August weekend we’re reviewing: farmers markets, the PNE, and especially west of Denman, the system’s most called-on area. To use the cars, members reserve online, then pay 38 cents a minute; cars must be left between UBC and Boundary, from 49th north. North Vancouver was added this year; Holzer says the next expansion will mean more cars and more incursion into the suburbs — maybe out to the ferries come summer? The airport?

Car2Go does use a service — Bashir’s Auto Cosmetics — to clean, fuel, and occasionally reposition orphaned vehicles, but the fleet mostly self-adjusts. “There’s not a street in Vancouver where we don’t have a member,” says Holzer, whose previous job was managing the 4,600-vehicle fleet in place for the Winter Games. His research suggests users will walk five minutes (maybe 10) to access a car, and that usage works well in cities where sharing fits into a larger transportation plan: members drive partway, then access transit, walk, or — especially after a night out — use cabs. (This summer, cab drivers in San Francisco protested the proliferation of ride-share companies in that taxi-deficient city, recognizing a looming threat.)

Is this the future of transportation? Holzer suggests car-sharing is part of a larger story. “The idea of ownership is definitely tailing off,” he says, and in this Gastown milieu, it does seem possible. What’s for certain is that the sharing is about more than just hardware. There are many third-party apps built on the company’s open data — local engineer Jarek Piórkowski has even posted his own custom zippy-dot animations of Car2Go member use on Youtube. It’s not something the company expected, but that’s the difference between owning and sharing: control takes a back seat.

Available car2go vehicles and vehicle movements in Vancouver from early morning of Friday, April 19 until early morning of Monday, April 22, 2013. Courtesy Jarek Piórkowski

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