Carsharing can open parking spaces to happier, healthier lives for all

Car ownership is an anchor on our choices and habits. It creates inertia against change.

This is most obvious when we think of the ways in which owning a car requires physical public sacrifices that cities have accepted for decades: parking spaces at home and at destinations, space for roadways. The assumption that people will own and rely on a car as a default mode drives parking minimums in building plans, forcing developers to spend more per unit and prioritize cars in their designs. Those roadway and building designs then abide for decades, and are very difficult and expensive to change.

A graphic from the Seattle-based Sightline Institute and architect Seth Goodman offers a stark comparison of this outcome: the amount of off-street space that developers must build to accommodate a typical two-bedroom apartment. This specific graphic reflects the median value of 1.5 parking spaces required per average two-bedroom unit in the Pacific Northwest/Cascadia region. Not only does this parking increase the overall cost of housing, it often displaces people – people with time, energy, expendable income, eyes on the street – who could otherwise live in that building and area.

Despite this high social cost of car ownership, for many city-dwellers, the primary modes are transit, biking and walking for most daily trips. Nonetheless, the car remains useful and attractive in some situations. Luckily, there are now car alternatives to ownership. Carsharing services, like Zipcar or car2go, fill the car need in those scenarios and, in turn, reduce the car ownership rates and the need for construction of new dedicated parking.


Earlier this fall, Vancouver, British Columbia, hosted the Carsharing Association Conference, which focused on the technologies, research, and service possibilities of an expanded role for carsharing in North America and beyond. The conference highlighted new research that illustrates the beneficial impacts of carsharing programs. According to a new study of corporate carsharing data presented by Susan Shaheen of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, 40 percent of employees at businesses that offer carsharing memberships reported reducing car ownership, either by selling or not buying a car (the decision was an even 20/20 split). Those employees, as a result, take more public transit and bike and walk more often.

Also highlighted at the conference were the efforts of local agencies to find ways to offer better access to carsharing as an incentive away from car ownership:

  • In the Twin Cities, local carsharing company HOURCAR upgraded its system to integrate into the regional transit payment system, allowing users to simply unlock a car with a swipe of a registered transit card – lowering barriers for potential users.
  • In another example of local program ingenuity, some of Seattle’s carshare program user fees are allocated to “membership bundles” given to people who qualify through lower incomes.
  • And in Portland, developers have the option of “buying down” up to half of the parking requirement through investments in bikesharing and carsharing.
  • Vancouver itself supports a public fleet of more than 1,200 carsharing vehicles, and the city government has integrated carsharing into its fleet-management approach, including hands-on training to help staff understand how carsharing can help them do their jobs better.

By the end of this year, approximately 1.78 million people in North America will belong to carsharing systems, according to a report from Navigant Research.

Moving the needle on car ownership through carsharing programs, however, will require still more hard work identifying and addressing the latent demand for the car-free (or “car-lite”) lifestyle. And, as part of that, agencies, advocates and residents should spend time identifying more explicitly the societal and governmental benefits of lower car ownership – whether that’s more space to live and play, health-promoting easier connections to transit, or just lower costs for everyone.

Photos: Top, surface parking in Michigan (Jeffrey Smith, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, excerpt of a graphic from the Sightline Institute (Seth Goodman).

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