Scary for automakers, car sharing makes sense many ways

Phil Berg
Car Culture
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On a bright Saturday morning as I headed to the hardware store I saw two subdivision neighbors mowing their lawns, using exactly the same model of John Deere D170 riding mower. I drove along thinking that these two big machines are only being used once a week to cover just two half-acre lawns, and isn’t it a shame my neighbors don’t share.

The word “share” strikes fear in vehicle makers’ hearts.

But share we must. Car buyers have noticed that 96 percent of the time they own a car, it sits in the driveway or garage, yet car payments, insurance payments, tax and license payments don’t follow similar periods of dormancy. (My calculation is based on the average 15,000 miles a year most people drive, which totals about 16 full days of use at an average speed of 40 mph.) Now, car buyers who have decided to change that math are using their cars as daily loaners with services like RelayRides, or renting them while they’re on vacation with a service like FlightCar. Some are also turning their cars into part-time taxicabs for ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar (see “Cars-for-hire companies Uber, Lyft jockey for Michigan drivers” on Sept.13).

As more car buyers share their vehicles, and use them as profit centers, the rest of us win big in variety and utility. I’ll explain: Several years ago I found myself being the owner of three two-seat convertibles, a Mazda, a BMW and a Porsche, while my subdivision neighbors each had a minivan and a mid-size SUV. Having two kids and a grandma who didn’t drive, you might think I should have followed the norm and bought a seven-seater. But instead, on those occasions that we needed to haul everyone on vacation or to a family reunion, I would simply trade one of my sports cars to a neighbor with a minivan. My neighbors all thought they got the better end of the swap. I had visions that if every subdivision’s home owners association bought an F150 or a Silverado for its members to share for the few times they haul the camper up north, then we could all drive sports cars the rest of the time. Life would be more fun, less toil.

The economy will likely urge us to overcome the socialist implications of shared vehicles, if the environment doesn’t force us to do so first with CO2 limits. Looking at the lack of useful public transportation in Metro Detroit means car sharing is poised to boom. I’ve seen European tourists at the DTW info desk ask where they can get a train to the city center, something available in almost all metro areas around the world — except Detroit.

Where I live it’s about $85 for a taxi ride to the airport, and the archaic monopoly of the system and horror stories from riders means this industry is ripe for overhaul. The three times I’ve found myself stranded at Detroit Metropolitan Airport the past half-dozen years, I’ve rented a car to get home because it was cheaper than a taxi, although these days car rental companies operate more like insurance sales services, while the actual car use part of the business is merely incidental. This business needs an overhaul, too.

Bad experiences with taxis and public transportation moved English teacher Jessica Klauzenberg to become a ride-share driver for Lyft. “I almost lost my job twice because the taxi I called was 45 minutes late,” the Ann Arbor resident relates. “When the Amazing Blue Taxi finally showed up, there were fresh McDonald’s wrappers on the seat, so I gave up on taxis.” Klauzenberg arrived here carless last March from Japan, and moved into a home on an Ann Arbor public bus route, which construction this summer eliminated, so she was forced to use a taxi to get to work.

“I found out about Lyft when I needed to get rides. Everyone I talked to in different cities — San Francisco and Washington D.C. — had nothing but positive things to say. I gave it a shot as a passenger. The drivers are working for themselves, there’s no reason they are going to be late.”

Those positive experiences convinced Klauzenberg to become a Lyft driver to augment her part-time teaching salary, so she bought a used four-door Volvo S60 because it matched the Lyft requirements for size and condition. “I like to drive. I think it’s great to make your own hours, you don’t have a boss over your shoulder, you’re in your own space.”

But making money sharing her car is not entirely what motivates Klauzenberg: “We are really making a difference to people who have no access to cars. It’s about the service and helping people. A lot of the time, the five-minute trip taking someone to the grocery store is not worth the $5 I make. But it’s one less car on the road.”

Phil Berg is a Metro Detroit

freelance writer.

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