Sunday, July 24, 2005

Economy Through Community

Murph and Pat Austin, two MUP students at Michigan, had the idea of starting up a cooperative car-sharing group in Ann Arbor a bit over a year ago, based on a course project they had done in transportation planning. I read about it on Murph's blog last summer and was smitten. The cost and tribulations of auto ownership have never been worth it, in my book, and so I have long been seeking an alternate model. Thus, the start of my involvement in A2C3, the Ann Arbor Community Car Cooperative. I bought into it last fall, but didn't become a driver. Having been only peripherally involved over the last year, the opportunity to become more integrally involved has arisen and I will be taking it. So, at this point, still having little to no influence in the organization but banking that I soon will, I begin what will be at least a year-long promotion of cooperative car sharing.

Why join a ride sharing cooperative?
Cooperative ownership of large assets like cars has a number of benefits for you, for the environment, and for the community. If you're like me, you NEED a car about once every 4-6 weeks. For an important trip home, to pick up a new purchase, or to take some work- or school-related trip. I sometimes have to go to archives in Kalamazoo, East Lansing, or Detroit. It's CONVENIENT to have a car once every 1-2 weeks. To go to a show, to go grocery shopping, or just to get out of town for a bit. Most of the rest of the time, driving (for those who live in town) is frivolous. If you need a car for a long commute, car-sharing is not for you. If you think you need a car to get up to North Campus, car-sharing is not for you. However, if you are dropping 1000 dollars a year on car insurance and on top of that have a car payment, car-sharing is a good way to cut down on those costs. If you have no car, joining a car coop is a way to have car access with a modest investment. With a clean driving record, the initial cost may be as low as $100. The benefits to the community are helping reduce the number of cars on the roads in Ann Arbor (traffic congestion) and the need for parking (an increasingly contentious neighborhood and city-wide issue). Environmentally, car-sharing has an inevitable reduction of pollution from frivolous trips and the reduction in market demand for production of new cars.

How would such a thing work?
Basically, you pay the initial fee to join. As I said, it currently starts as low as a hundred dollars for those with perfect driving records and goes up for those who have points. This fee gives you a share in the cooperative, meaning you own part of the assets with the other members. It also gives you a say in governing the coop. So it's sort of like ownership of stock, except the coop is not a heartless corporation devoted to making profits. It's a small local group of people seeking economy and who value alternative models for transportation. Once you join and are cleared to drive, you can reserve the car(s) as you want here. As you use the cars, you will be charged a small fee based upon how long you drove the car for and how many miles. This is currently billed monthly. This fee covers the costs of gasoline (you don't individually need to refill it, or if you do, you get reimbursed), maintenance like oil changes and repairs, insurance, and of the coop's overhead. The car currently has a parking spot a couple blocks west of downtown. The bottom line is, sign up, reserve the car and drive it, return it, and pay your monthly charges. You can come to meetings and help promote the coop, too.

That sounds great. Who thought of this?
Cooperatives have been around for more than a hundred years. Communal ownership of large assets goes back to the early industrial period in Great Britain, where workers owned the machinery they worked with instead of just working for a corporation that owned everything. Cooperatives became a particularly popular ownership model in the US in the late 20s and 30s when the economy went bad and people couldn't afford major investments. Farmers were the biggest beneficiaries of cooperative ownership as they pooled resources to develop utilities. Most recently, car coops and other car sharing groups have sprung up in larger cities where it's tough to find parking and cars aren't an everyday necessity. Zip Car, Flex Car, and I-Go are just three examples. Murph and Pat, who soon will be urban planners, thought that Ann Arbor, sometimes thought of as environmentally progressive, might offer fertile ground for a car coop.

Community ownership? Isn't that for communists?
Let me ask YOU a question. Aren't you a little old for name-calling? Seriously, there are LOTS of coops you patronize but probably didn't realize. Credit unions are coops. Welch's and Sunkist are fruit marketing coops. There are actually lots of coops throughout the U.S. and they fall all along the political spectrum, just as corporations do. Cooperative ownership is an economical, community-oriented way of doing business and providing services. Plain and simple.

How do I sign up?
Send me an email at lwinling[at] If you are really interested, within a couple weeks we should be able to get you driving around Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. Tell your friends.

UPDATE: I'm including several links to articles about car-sharing elsewhere so that you can read about some of the precedents. Flexcar in DC, I-Go in Chicago and Evanston, and Zip Cars everywhere.

UPDATE 2: Via Bob Harris comes this LATimes Magazine article on how some home-hacking and a bigger battery can get the Toyota Prius over 100 mpg. As you know if you follow the links, many of the larger car-sharing services have hybrid vehicles, as a commenter notes. However, I think it is imperative that we do not simply try to replace our gas guzzlers with more efficient cars, without significantly altering the way we approach automotive transportation. The auto has, in some ways, be very liberating and empowering for our society. Its overuse and our national fetish with cars has been bad for the U.S. There is an acceptable level of auto use. It is a small fraction of our current use.


Anonymous prosho said...

This is a great idea. I've seen it used on planes. Same reasons - high costs of ownership and infrequent use. If you don't have your cars yet, you could check out hybrids - they should make your dollar last longer.

And, have you done the math when you compare yourselves against the commercial car rentals (especially the low end rent-a-wreck ones)? When do your members break even?

11:32 PM  
Blogger Edward Vielmetti said...

There was just a story in the NYT about car-sharing in Europe - I clipped it and sent a copy to Gaia.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister belongs to one in Montreal and Ann used to
belong to one in Boston. I think they both think they
are great. But can you actually book a car to take away
for 4 or 5 days? Or is it mostly for shorter trips near
Ann Arbor?


1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps They are megalomaniacs.


1:46 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

You could reserve for more than a day, but at that point, renting would probably make better money sense (since when you rent, milage is usually free).

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward, I think that article was also reprinted in the Freep last Thursday. Here's the link:

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Murph said...

Note: Patrick and I didn't come up with it out of a class project - Patrick had worked for ZipCar in Boston before coming back to A2 from Ann Arbor, and I knew about it from him; we connected with Gaia because of a workshop on carsharing at the NASCO Institute (a conference in Ann Arbor every November for student co-opers from across the US and Canada). I did write a paper for my transportation policy class on carsharing that semester inspired by all this, though.

I think the best way to handle longer trips (this is either something I heard that ZipCar does or that the People's Car Coop in Ontario does; can't remember) is to arrange for a carshare-member discount with some traditional car rental agency. That way the shared car(s) isn't tied up all weekend, every weekend, by one person, while there's still a membership benefit in that kind of use.

12:00 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I thought I saw on some TCAUP course project page that you two had done a feasibility study for some course (maybe Scott Campbell's) Winter 2004.

1:25 PM  
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