1 Mar 2018

Car sharing in and around Utrecht

Jeroen writes:*

The greater Utrecht area consists of the city Utrecht and its less densely populated surroundings. This area contains around 54% of all the people employed in the city (a total of almost 260.000), while the city itself is home to less than 30% of its employees. This means that every day, over 180.000 people travel to their work in the city and although the Dutch train system is operating relatively smoothly, the majority of them still prefer going to their work by car.

In 2015, almost 6.700.000 Dutchies owned at least 1 car. This is over half the population (almost 72% of all Dutch households). The greater Utrecht area fits in this with 69% of all households owning at least one car and 16% owning more than one.

40% of the residents of the city say they experience nuisance from cars, including full streets, air- and noise pollution and dangerous situations. The government already had the idea to combat these grievances in the early ‘90s, by promoting car sharing. The government hoped that in 2010, 40% of the travellers by car would use car sharing initiatives, meaning 2 million citizens per year. However, in 2015, around 14.000 cars were actually in ‘sharing circulation’, with around 90.000 users a year, spread out over different platforms, and in the entire country. Currently, the typical care sharer is a highly educated urbanite in his/her 20s and 30s.

Car sharing exists in two forms. Peer-2-Peer car sharing platforms give car owners the ability to rent out their car when they do not need to use it. Gas is usually for the users account, and you pay extra per kilometre if you drive above a certain distance. ‘Classical’ company owned car sharing gives users access to their entire fleet (which usually have set parking spaces), for a standard fee. It is not unusual for their cars to contain pay cards with which gas can be bought. Some well known examples are Greenwheels, Car2Go and ConnectCar. In the municipality alone, there are already 1500 cars open for sharing, with around 300 being managed by companies, parked and waiting for users.

Although the idea of car sharing seems sound and rational (since cars tend to stand still for about 23 hours a day) it raises some questions. For instance, are car sharing initiatives the best ways to counteract the negative externalities caused by cars? The tax incentive to use cars less get diminished by companies who bundle all the costs to a monthly fee, thus decreasing the effectiveness of for instance gasoline taxes, because the user does not ‘directly’ pay for it. And although it is great that people who own cars can rent them out, and thus making better use of the cars on the street, are companies filling up the already few parking spots in city with new, ‘ownerless’ cars really helping by making cars more readily available to a segment of the population that is used to using public transport and the bike? Will it not be more beneficial to incentivize people to use the public transport, by investing in clearer, cleaner and more regular connections?

Bottom line: The massive amount of people owning and using cars can cause big problems for a dense city like Utrecht, next to the harmful effects it has in general, and thus, car sharing seems like a logical way to reduce this. But does it not unintentionally create more problems?

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)


Martijn van Engelenburg said...

I like your train of thought in this article. I agree that the addition of new cars by sharing companies could be a nuisance, but some time ago I wrote an article on this and found that most cities have an oversupply of parking spots in garages nowadays. These spots however are usually pretty overpriced. So a quick solution to get these sharing cars of the street and in to the garages (with a deal between the garage owners and the car sharing owners).
But then the nuisances for citizens will still remain? What do you think would be the perfect solution for Utrecht? Is it desirable to make the centre car-free?

Robert Altena said...

Hi Jeroen, nice post about carsharing! It is nice to see that the municipality is trying to get more use out of one car. Do these initiatives also use electric cars or less polluting combustion engines in order to decrease the impact that the cars have on the urban ecosystem? Just like you I am questioning if Utrecht is trying to solve the right problem. If they want to decrease pollution is it not better to promote carpooling and public transport instead of promoting car sharing. Do you see Utrecht taking major steps against the pollution of the environment by limiting the huge amounts of traffic the city gets. Because so many employees have to travel into the city from different cities might it be a good solution for the municipality to reward companies who have a higher percentage of workers traveling by bike or train? I am curious to see if they are able to solve the high volumes of traffic travelling in and out of the city in the coming years because it would be helpful for multiple cities in the Netherlands too.

Ankita Singhvi said...

Nice post Jeroen! This partially ties partly into to my blog post about public transport, and what determines the demand for it. If I extend what I learnt from that piece of research, then it shows that in order to decrease the demand for cars it would be important to know what the substitute for cars is ('the next best thing'). In this sense, the reason that car-sharing did not become as popular as the government hoped might be because it did not fulfil the demand for a transportation medium that was as comfortable, as low of a threshold to use, as reliable and as consistent as a private car. For a lot of people, having a car outside their door gave was/felt like a better use of their money than car sharing or public transport.

I would agree with Martijn that car free centres are a good approach (giving urban spaces back to pedestrians and cyclists has been shown to increase quality of life through many factors), and that this in addition to increasing the cost of using a private car (higher tax?) would probably end up increasing the use of public transport and decreasing the burden on streets.

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