Auto Co-ops: Dude, Where’s My Car?

I like to drive. There, I said it. I’m one of those people melting ice caps and enriching Middle Eastern despots not because I can’t earn a living without a car and not because the housing market is forcing me to commute from Mission (or wherever it is desperate Vancouverites are buying single-family homes these days).

I like to drive. There, I said it. I’m one of those people melting ice caps and enriching Middle Eastern despots not because I can’t earn a living without a car and not because the housing market is forcing me to commute from Mission (or wherever it is desperate Vancouverites are buying single-family homes these days).

I don’t even drive because I have to take kids to hockey practice; in fact, I shudder at the thought. I live downtown and I don’t drive to work, so I’m left peddling thin excuses: “my car is for getting groceries” or “my car is for going to Ikea” (even though I hardly need another Billy or Klippan). My only reason for owning, maintaining and piloting a car – at what, given insurance rates and the looming spectre of peak oil, amounts to considerable expense – is the enjoyment I get from the villainy I perpetuate. Living and working in downtown Vancouver, there is, ultimately, no excuse.


Vancouver is the third-densest city in North America, second only to New York and San Francisco, and its residents are increasingly choosing to get around by more sustainable means; the 2006 census shows a five per cent decline since 2001 in the number of people commuting by car.

Despite considerable progress, however, the car remains stubbornly entwined with British Columbian lifestyles. We revelled in the boost to our greenie image when our premier announced the carbon tax and we’ll congratulate ourselves again when the Canada Line opens for business, but even the most wide-eyed optimist must acknowledge the hurdles we face. Vehicle ownership per Metro Vancouver resident grew in the last census by seven per cent; residents of less dense cities with better transit infrastructure, such as Toronto and Montreal, are still more likely to leave their cars at home than Vancouverites. One need only witness the festival of auto ego that is Yaletown on a sunny Saturday to understand the persistence of car culture.

The contradictions evident in these trends reflect growing tensions over the role of the car in our shiny, happy, EcoDense city. Awareness of environmental issues such as climate change and the resulting antipathy toward cars continues to grow, but there is as yet little evidence that Vancouverites are really willing to give up their wheels. It is in this context – the gap between our eco-conscious attitudes and our reluctance to eschew driving – that car-sharing organizations are hoping to thrive. The two leading companies in Vancouver, 12-year-old Co-operative Auto Network (CAN) and one-year-old upstart Zipcar, use two very different strategies: CAN implores us to drive less and use a shared car when we have to, while Zipcar touts the freedom and convenience of access to a cool car just an online booking away.

Either way, the message is the same: you no longer have to own a car to enjoy its benefits.

Car sharing is, in some ways, an idea as old as Marx and Engels: redundancy is surplus, and when goods are owned collectively by groups of people, fewer goods are ultimately needed. Of course, members of car-sharing organizations are not promoting an ideology of governance or economics or property: they just prefer not to own something as costly as a car if they don’t have to; avoiding insurance, gas and upkeep payments (all of which are included) is a welcome bonus. All car-sharing schemes charge members a combination of per-hour and per-kilometre rates, so the cost-benefit equation depends entirely on how much you drive. Tracey Axelsson, CAN’s 41-year-old founder and executive director, argues that this is the intrinsic environmental advantage of car sharing: people drive less because they pay by the trip.

CAN was conceived as a practicum project by Axelsson while she was a post-baccalaureate student at SFU back in the mid-’90s. Since then the not-for-profit outfit has grown to become B.C.’s largest car-sharing organization, with more than 4,200 members and 218 vehicles. Axelsson says her members are attracted to the organization’s communitarian ethos but that no one signs up for CAN – forgoing the luxuries of individual car ownership, such as having an empty Starbucks cup repository in the back seat and adorning the rear bumper with stuck-on witticisms – because they’re simply enamoured with the idea of collectivization. She’s the first to admit that it’s all about saving money. “We raised the hourly rate by 50 cents,” she laments, “and usage dropped appreciably. Fifty cents!” Pamela Leaman, 67, a member since 2001, confirms Axelsson’s observation: “I use it for grocery shopping and day trips with other seniors. I’m on a fixed income and the low cost really helps.”

Axelsson sees cars as an infrequently necessary evil she can mitigate by offering a cheaper alternative to individual ownership. “We’re trying to replace the personal automobile by mirroring the service it provides,” she explains, “and we do it by trying to ensure that our service makes sense financially.” CAN is a co-op, which means members buy a $500 share when they sign up and can cash out when they give up their membership. This structure enables easy scalability because Axelsson can just buy more cars when she gets more members; and because CAN is a not-for-profit, all its revenue is reinvested, with the size of the fleet always proportional to its use. An important corollary is the lack of an incentive – the profit motive – to promote further use of the cars: this is central to CAN’s claim of environmental benefits but also to the organization’s resolutely anti-car position. Summing up the attitude at the core of her automotive ideology, Axelsson exclaims defiantly: “it’s just a car!” For her and her members, car sharing is a rational, utility-maximizing, cost-minimizing transportation strategy. Car ownership, however, is often not.

Axelsson aims for her co-op to mimic the transportation service car ownership provides, but cars aren’t a service. And they’re not a product either; they’re a symbol. Zipcar, a Boston-based for-profit car-sharing company that boasts 200,000 members worldwide and launched its Vancouver operation in April 2007, seems to understand this. AnnMarie MacKinnon, regional marketing manager for Zipcar Vancouver, illustrates the company’s approach to car culture by describing the thrill of getting a Zipcar membership in terms that conjure images of that sweet-16 fantasy of getting a convertible for your birthday. “There’s a really cool moment our members experience when they get their card, they get in a cool car and they just drive away.” Zipcar, with 2,000 members in Vancouver and 106 cars, is a business; it aims to profit as much from each car as possible, which means encouraging its members to drive. Its website even lists the reasons members like driving their Zipcars; examples include convenience, the privilege of driving whatever kind of (Zip)car they want and vanity (“You will be the envy of all the other drivers on the road in your über-chic Zipcar”).

For Zipcar, car culture is not an obstacle to be overcome; it’s a marketing advantage. By appealing to car culture rather than defying it, and mixing in a healthy dose of savvy green branding, Zipcar lets carbon-conscious urbanites feel good about wanting to go for a spin every once in a while.

Asked if she was into cars, Helen Stortini, a 31-year-old fundraiser for a local environmental NGO and a member since June 2007, responded, “Not until I joined Zipcar. Then I drove a convertible for the first time, and I started to understand why people like cars.” Her experience exemplifies both Zipcar’s relationship with car culture and its market positioning between more explicitly anti-car organizations such as CAN and individual car ownership. CAN’s fleet consists almost entirely of sensible economy cars such as the Mazda 3, while roughly 35 per cent of the Zipcars in Vancouver are premium vehicles such as the the Audi A3 and the Toyota Tacoma. People join because their values and their lifestyles make car sharing appealing, but once they’re members they’re encouraged to drive – with little incentives including a 15 per cent heavy-use discount – because, hey, cars are convenient, fun and cool.

Marketing is the most obvious difference between CAN and Zipcar, but there are others. Price is a big one. Consider a hypothetical month in which someone living on Commercial Drive books a car for two three-hour grocery-shopping trips, a five-hour big-box-store safari, an overnight trip to Whistler and an afternoon in Deep Cove. The total damage is about $215 for a CAN member while the same usage would cost a Zipcar member driving the cheapest model available almost $300. However, Zipcar has its own advantages. Due in part to its late-2007 merger with Seattle-based Flexcar, Zipcar members have access to vehicles in almost every major North American city, from Toronto to Seattle. As well, there’s its clever booking and access system: Zipcars are located and booked online, then unlocked at the start of the reservation period with the user’s unique “Zipcard.” CAN’s system is a little more analog, with keys in lockboxes hidden on the car. The cards offer members the convenience of hopping in a shiny new car on a whim, with the click of a mouse and the swipe of a card. Which brings me back to the most important difference: culturally, Zipcar is pro-car.

Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and director of the City Program at SFU, believes that whatever the ideological disposition of the organization behind the wheel, car sharing’s potential lies not in the wholesale elimination of the personal car. He points out that it doesn’t work for people who drive every day and don’t have a lot of other options for getting around, noting that car sharing is “limited by the physical design of the city.” It can’t unclog the Second Narrows Bridge or dissolve the cloud of smog that drifts up the Fraser Valley because it’s not a viable option for commuters. “We can’t assume that it has the capacity for salvation,” he says. “But it does provide another option.” And new options are how our dependence on the car will be eroded. The question that remains is how CAN and Zipcar will coexist among the panoply of options urban Vancouverites already have.

CAN is thriving – potentially as a result of the visibility Zipcar is bringing to car sharing in general – with 70 cars added in the past year. Its growth, however, will be limited not just by density, but also by the number of people who share its communitarian anti-car ethos. Zipcar, on the other hand, faces different challenges. Membership growth has been languid since the excitement of its initial arrival has dwindled, and it’s increasingly being squeezed on all sides as rental car companies figure out its innovations, CAN undercuts its price, and manufacturers introduce new, cheaper fuel-efficient models. It’s going to need its marketing budget. Each of these organizations has a distinct psychographic niche to fill in Vancouver, but neither provides a convincing answer to the really pressing question that we, as a society, face in the climate-change era: What about me?

People don’t own and drive cars because they are the cheapest way to get around, but because they are the most convenient. Furthermore, middle-class car ownership is among the salient cultural and social features of postwar North American life. We invest much more than money in our cars: we imbue them with taste, status and vanity; they mark class, lifestyle, even personality.

Our cultural landscape has been saturated with automotive marketing for a half-century, Hollywood frequently casts cars in leading roles, and the familiar myth of the open road is one of rock and roll’s most enduring tropes. Even a car-sharing company that appeals to my love of driving for driving’s sake, atmosphere be damned, won’t pry my keys from my fingers because I love my car. It is my shame, and I predict my enduring shame, that I personify the resilience of car culture – but based on the record number of cars on B.C. roads, it appears I’m not alone.