On June 1, the day Zipcar Inc. revealed its intention to go public, another announcement ricocheted around the car-sharing community: Communauto, the Montreal-based company that pioneered the industry in North America, hailed a deal to add 50 Nissan Leafs to its fleet — the first car-share to significantly commit to electric vehicles.
It’s a huge investment, considering EVs’ untested cold-weather performance and the scant infrastructure for charging the cars. But at the press conference, Communauto president Benoît Robert proclaimed, “We want to change behaviour. We don’t think technology [alone]will change the automobile problem.”
Finding innovative ways to lower car usage is the rallying cry of the whole car-sharing industry. What’s distinct about Communauto is its exceptional success at accomplishing that end profitably.
Robert was a student at Laval University in Quebec City when he launched a car-sharing club in 1994. Within a year, he turned it into a business with “an environmental, social and human mission,” according to Marco Viviani, Communauto’s director of business development and Robert’s top lieutenant.
Today, Communauto is North America’s second-largest car-share, after Zipcar, by vehicle and member counts. Communauto operates in just four cities, all in Quebec — Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Gatineau — and has grown organically, with a modest marketing investment. Its fleet boasts more than 1,000 vehicles, and in some Montreal neighbourhoods, more than 5 per cent of residents are members of Communauto.
The company’s success is due in part to Quebec’s relatively low insurance rates. Communauto can offer significantly lower rates than most car-shares. The low cost, in turn, draws more customers. Communauto’s cars have usage rates of 11 to 15 hours per day, compared to the industry average of seven to eight, says Viviani.
The company has woven itself into the urban fabric by partnering with local transportation organizations. Members who have transit passes get rebates on car-shares. Communauto is also running a pilot project with Quebec City taxis, enabling members to get discounted vouchers for cabs through their Communauto accounts. The company has a discount deal with Montreal bike-sharing service Bixi. “The idea is, don’t own a car. Have different solutions in your pocket,” says Viviani.
Robert is known in the industry as an idealist who draws a sharp line between car-shares that emphasize the public good and those that stress profits. But for those he deems allies, he’s happy to offer assistance and partnership. Communauto has teamed up with the smaller Ottawa car-share Vrtucar to allow members to use both organizations’ vehicles. The company is also not averse to partnering with potential rivals. For example, during busy summer months, when Communauto sometimes runs low on vehicles, it sends clients to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, to name one collaborating agency, where they can rent cars at reduced prices (Communauto gets a cut of the transaction).
It’s even tapped the so-called peer-to-peer car-sharing model, and is planning to launch a pilot project that enables members to rent their cars to others.
Communauto’s deep roots have discouraged rivals from entering Quebec. Though Zipcar visited Communauto a few years back, it has so far stayed out of the province.