Why governments should invest in car sharing

Zipcar car sharing
CC BY 2.0 Flickr

I may have been in America too long.

No sooner do I hear, via Business Green, that the British government is providing £500,000 in additional support for expanding car sharing in urban and rural comminities, or read about Helsinki's plan to make car ownership pointless, that I start to worry about distorting markets etc. I mean, what if government-supported car sharing constitutes unfair competition for car dealers? Or the poor old oil industry for that matter?

It appears my inner-neocon is more concerned with that elusively theoretical notion of a truly free, unfettered market than I am with the health, well-being and comfort of my fellow human beings.

Don't get me wrong, we do need to be wary of unintended consequences. And those consequences may include market-distorting effects. If bike-sharing programs harm local bike shops, that's a factor to be considered when weighing their merits. If government support for EVs gets in the way of fixing our cities, that's a potential downside to promotion of an otherwise less harmful technology.

The fact is that government has long been in the business of helping move people around. Whether it's highway funding, direct and indirect oil subsidies, government-owned and operated mass transit, or support for privately-owned railroads, bus lines and just about everything else, you will not find a sector of the transport industry where a truly free market reigns.

In transportation, just as in every other crucial sector of our lives, we need to base our decisions on where we want to get to as a society, and then we need to make policy decisions that strategically achieve our goals. Sometimes that means government needs to get out of the way. And sometimes it means government directly investing in services or technologies which move us towards our goal.

I'd much rather government money go to expanding car sharing than to continuing to prop up the crumbling, over-congested and polluting paradigm of universal car ownership.

The alternative, of course, if we really want to go the free market route is that we make the car and oil industries include the true environmental and social cost of their product in their price tags.

But I have a feeling they wouldn't much like that either.

Tags: Car Sharing | Cities | Economics

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