Carless drivers — not driverless cars — are reshaping Canada’s transportation landscape
November 16, 2022
While the concept of driverless cars has preoccupied the minds of media and manufacturers for years, a more influential trend in urban transportation has quietly been taking hold on the ground.
Car sharing is a membership-based service providing drivers access to a network of shared vehicles, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, at unattended self-service locations. It provides an affordable alternative to individual car ownership, and is becoming an increasingly important player in transportation in Canada and around the world.
Car sharing’s unprecedented growth due to affordability
Communauto is the largest car-sharing service in Canada and the oldest in North America. Founded in 1994 in Montreal, it now operates in 15 Canadian cities and in Paris, France.
Before 2020, Communauto experienced an annual growth rate of about 15 percent. Then, in 2021, Communauto saw a 30 percent increase in membership and overall usage of the service. It had to order 1,300 new vehicles to meet the unprecedented popularity of the service.
This summer, demand was so high that, in places like Halifax, some car-share members struggled to find a car to book. Inflation and high gasoline prices are likely to further boost demand for car sharing.
“This growing demand demonstrates the importance of car sharing as an urban mobility solution,” said Benoit Robert, president and founder of Communauto. “The best way to cope with the rising cost of gas is more cycling, walking and public transit – and supplementing with car sharing."
According to a report by the technical consulting group FutureMind, car sharing is particularly popular among Millennials, the population demographic born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. They tend to use public transport for everyday travel, but require passenger cars for shopping or a trip out of town with friends. The same report forecasts the value of the global car-sharing market in 2024 at US$11 billion, with as many as 36 million users by 2025.
Those numbers do not surprise Patrick Nangle, CEO of Modo, a member-owned car-share co-operative serving Greater Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan. He has seen steady growth over the years, beginning in 1997 with just 16 members and two cars, to more than 26,000 members and 850 cars today.
Nangle regards affordability as the biggest driver of growth in car-sharing.
“It’s expensive to own a car and, if you have good public transit, you don’t actually need to use your car that much,” he told Research Money. “We’re flying headfirst into a recession and everybody is challenged. Whether you’re looking at capital or running costs, cars weigh very heavily in your family budget.”
Modo recently surveyed its members, and found that most of them had annual household incomes in the lower to middle range, from about $50,000 to $125,000. In terms of age, Modo members skew younger, from about 25 to 55 years old.
“Older people come from a generation that tend to be heavily emotionally attached to their cars,” explains Nangle. “But as the population ages, that will become less of an issue. We’re also seeing a lot of newcomers joining the program and just started a program to help teenagers learn to drive.”
Reducing the environmental footprint of driving
The other benefit of car sharing is its environmental impact. For every car provided, Modo has been able to take about 10 private vehicles off the road. Whereas the average rate of car ownership in Vancouver is 1.6 cars per household, Modo members have 0.36 cars per household, and roughly a third of Modo members have gotten rid of a car since joining.
“Just by car sharing, research shows you immediately reduce your emissions by 30-50 percent, partly because you drive less and tend to group your trips together,” he said. “And our cars tend to be newer than the average, with better emissions technology, including many hybrid and EV models.”
Nangle adds that, even if Canada successfully transitions to electric vehicles (EVs), car sharing will remain an essential component of urban transportation.
“If everyone who owns a car today had an EV, the grid would be overwhelmed,” he observed. “Plus, there are environmental issues around batteries and other EV materials. So, yes, we should absolutely transition to electric, but we should be thinking of both electric and shared cars, and the government should be promoting EV car sharing at the top of its list, not at the bottom.”
What governments can do
While companies like Modo and Communauto are working to add EVs to their fleet, the federal and provincial governments are doing little to support them.
“Every Canadian that buys an EV gets a $5,000 rebate per car, but Modo, with its 26,000 members, can only get rebates on 10 EVs per year,” said Nangle. “That really needs to change.”
There is also the issue of EV-charging infrastructure.
“We need to find a way to get access to charging infrastructure, without having to own it. A curbside charger is up to $20,000 — that’s almost the cost of a car. Plus, we don’t own the parking places and the cars aren’t there forever.”
For Nangle, municipal governments can best support car sharing by providing free parking to car-share vehicles. In Vancouver, Modo drivers park free in resident-only and permit-only zones, and for up to two hours at all on-street metered stalls.
At the provincial level, there are discussions in British Columbia about providing a tax credit for those who do not own a car. This move follows in the wake of a bill being considered in California, which would incentivize drivers to shift to more sustainable options.
“People who don’t own a car usually have a more multi-modal approach to transportation, for example, walking, cycling, using public transit and then car sharing when required,” concluded Nangle. “As we’re making this transition to EVs, we need to make a deeper change in terms of how we get around. That includes shifting away from individual car ownership, and making a real push toward car sharing in conjunction with active transportation and transit.”