Benoît Robert may be the president of a car-sharing firm, but he arrived at a recent interview looking every inch the cyclist.
His company, Montreal-based Communauto, owns 3,500 vehicles in 17 cities, but here he was in the city’s La Fontaine park, with his right pant leg tucked into his sock to avoid grease from his bike chain.
On any given day, Mr. Robert is just as likely to cycle, take the metro or hail a cab as he is to drive one of his recognizable silver-and-green Hyundais, he said. “We are good users of taxis – sometimes you need a taxi.”
This ecumenical approach to transport is not false humility from the founder; it’s his business model. For more than 20 years, car sharing has been thought of as one of the next big things in urban transport, capable of replacing thousands of private cars by providing access to the gas guzzlers when they’re really useful, such as for trips to IKEA, while leaving urbanites to get around by foot or transit the rest of the time.
The sector has never quite lived up to the hopes of its boosters because of regulatory hurdles and challenges with scale. But Communauto seems to be having a moment. The company has fared surprisingly well during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks in part to a simultaneous drop in transit ridership and car sales. Other pandemic side effects, such as more local vacations and daytime errands by remote workers, also helped the firm.
From June to October, use of the Communauto fleet outperformed the same months in 2019, according to numbers provided by the company. “It was an explosion,” said Mr. Robert. “Our cars were everywhere this summer.”
The question now for Communauto, and for cities, is how the pandemic will affect transportation habits over the long run. If buses and subways continue to repel urbanites, smaller players such as car sharing may help with a “green recovery.”
Even if car-sharing companies still occupy a small niche in urban transportation, the concept has promising environmental credentials. A 2010 analysis found the average car-sharing vehicle took nine to 13 cars off the road, while households that use the service can be expected to cut their carbon footprint by more than half a tonne per year.
“We’re going to need lots of niche solutions to have any hope of reaching a low-carbon future,” said Nicholas Rivers, Canada Research Chair in Climate and Energy Policy at the University of Ottawa. “It’s one more arrow in our quiver.”
Since its founding as a three-car experiment in Quebec City in 1994, Communauto has been a local darling in Quebec. The province’s investment agency, Investissement Québec, bought a 24-per-cent stake in the company last year for an undisclosed sum, and the firm thrives most in dense, parking-starved downtown Montreal. More than half its cars are located in the city and five per cent of Montreal households are Communauto members, including 14.5 per cent in the eco-conscious Plateau neighbourhood.
But the company is also expanding aggressively across Canada, with large fleets in Edmonton, Toronto and Halifax, along with a dozen other cities and a small European outpost in Paris. Membership has grown about fivefold in the last decade, to roughly 100,000 users overall, mirroring growth in car sharing as a whole.
The industry grew by 23 per cent a year in North America from 2007 to 2016, and now counts more than two million members on the continent and 10 million globally, according to a recent paper by Hadi Dowlatabadi, Canada Research Chair in Applied Mathematics of Global Change at the University of British Columbia.
There is no regular fee for Communauto’s free floating service – drivers drop off their car at a legal residential street parking spot near their destination and pay per use. Access to its parking lot-based cars ranges from $5 to $30 a month, depending on the membership plan.
Compared to the vast market for private vehicles and the people-moving power of public transit, of course, Communauto and other sharing firms remain marginal transportation options. Their growth has been slowed, at times, by political opposition, mostly around access to street parking – an irony the company resents, because research shows privately owned cars spend 95 per cent of their lives parked, on average.
In 2018, a group of urbanist Toronto councillors fought against fierce opposition from colleagues in the inner suburbs to win the company an 18-month pilot project, including street parking permits. Council voted this summer to make the program permanent.
“We had to work our butts off,” said downtown city councillor Joe Cressy. “It was not an insignificant debate and hurdle to get city council to designate car-sharing spots on residential streets.”
Communauto also has to contend with aggressive growth in the marketplace over the past decade, giving rise to rivals such as Zipcar, and then a serious wobble over the past 12 months. Share Now (formerly Car2Go) pulled out of North America and three European cities this year because of high costs and low adoption. General Motors also announced it was shuttering its car-sharing service, Maven, in the spring.
Communauto is counting on being perceived as the environmentalist option of the bunch. It is one of the few car-sharing firms that launched as a startup with green goals, Mr. Robert argues. Zipcar is owned by the Avis Budget rental conglomerate, while Share Now is a subsidiary of Daimler and BMW.
“When car makers and big rental services get into car sharing, they’re not doing it for the same reasons as us,” said Mr. Robert. “We’re trying to achieve a social goal – less car ownership.”
Even in eco-friendly Quebec, however, convincing consumers to reduce car use is a hard sell. While 74 per cent of Quebeckers say there’s an urgent need to act on climate change, according to a recent survey by Université Laval and the environmentalist publication Unpointcinq, just 35 per cent said they have reduced their driving to achieve that goal.
There are also reasons to believe that car-sharing will remain too inconvenient to make much of a dent in urban transport. The model combines several traits travellers avoid, such as having to wait and variability in travel time, Prof. Rivers noted.
Mr. Robert believes time is on his side. He thinks that millennials and their preference for low-maintenance lifestyles could help shake North America’s addiction to car ownership. “Social values change,” he said. “My father washed his car every weekend … my daughters couldn’t be bothered to take care of a car.”
Communauto also points to the company’s steady profitability. It is a private company and doesn’t disclose financial results, but vice-president of strategic development Marco Viviani says the firm has turned a profit for most of its 26-year life and probably will this year despite the pandemic.
Where it goes from here is murkier. The pandemic could accelerate the company’s growth if frightened transit riders take up car sharing as an alternative. But as Joe Cressy, the Toronto city councillor, argues, car sharing actually does best when cities have robust transit networks so that residents only need cars for specific chores such as going to IKEA.
Mr. Robert is still hoping for a tipping point when the company gets big enough to start growing even faster. In theory, growth should beget growth, as more cars in the fleet make the service more convenient and more attractive.
“When will the tipping point happen?” he said, shortly before biking away. “It’s hard to say.”
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