On The Road Again

23 06 2011

Americans love their cars. There are about 250 million of them in the USA right now, which is one for every .8 persons. The only problem is that the vast majority of these cars sit idly for many hours each day.

The automobile has had an enormous impact on society. It has given us convenience, mobility and freedom like nothing before, yet it has made us a lazier country, one addicted to a finite fossil fuel (that is more likely than not to be imported). Our cities have developed in response to the automobile, with far-flung suburbs and urban sprawl the norm, rather than compact center cities with high population densities.

So what to do about this problem? Simple. Car sharing.

Thanks to new legislation in California, individuals are now free to rent out private vehicles (effectively becoming a commercial enterprise). And now there are several middleman companies there offering vehicle brokering services to help car owners and car renters together.

It’s a great deal for all. Folks without cars are able to rent for ridiculously low rates, while car owners can make money off an otherwise depreciating piece of property.

Think of it this way. Suppose you rented a storefront to house a retail business, but you were only open 60 hours per week. That leaves 108 hours each week in which your asset is not producing revenue. The same thinking is what is guiding the peer-to-peer car sharing movement.

There are other variations on this as well, such as ZipCar, and the various bike rental kiosks operated in several large US cities (like the Denver B-Cycle program).

Of course, I can see the entire automotive industry not being happy about this, as well as the insurance companies. Every time someone figures out how to live without a car it means one less car sold, and one less car insured. Being able to rent on an as-needed basis offers huge benefits to consumers.

But it also offers benefits to society. It’s one less car occupying space in parking lots, curb sides and garages. And as the nation comes to grips with what is likely a future with consistently high gas prices (and likely to get worse), we will have to rethink how we plan our cities, along with where we live and work. I bet that in 10-20 years we will see a return to the inner city, or at least a commute distance of 5 miles or less. While cars will still be used for vacations and leisure activities, they will become thought of more as liabilities rather than assets. They are expensive to own, maintain and insure.

I know that these are things car- and truck-loving people do not like to hear, but this conjecture could easily become reality. Until then, start-ups facilitating car sharing will likely continue to prosper in states like California. Let’s hope the remaining states can see fit to pass similar legislation allowing such programs to exist.

Dr “Buckle Up” Gerlich



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