The TH Interview: Kevin McLaughlin, AutoShare President

A mid 1990's news story from Europe spawned the first car sharing network in Canada in October of 1998. Since then, co-founder Kevin McLaughlin has worked tirelessly on making AutoShare an affordable and viable option to car-ownership in cities across Canada. His dedication to the environment does not end there, as he has also co-founded Evergreen, a national NGO aimed at bringing communities and nature together to form a healthy and sustainable environment. Despite these responsibilities, Kevin helps to raise his young son and still finds time to volunteer at a bird and dog rescue program started by his wife. We talked with Kevin about the workings of AutoShare and how he manages to find the time to do so much.

TreeHugger: When talking to new customers, what have been the biggest reasons for signing up with AutoShare?

Kevin McLaughlin: Cost savings, convenience, building an insurance record, going to IKEA, and helping the environment.TH: One of the major obstacles to car-sharing is the change in behaviour it requires of people. How does AutoShare assist people in changing their behaviour?

KM: Money helps a lot. People like to save money, and we try to make it easy for them to understand how they can do that. In the early days we talked about the environment, but why tell them it's good for them if it tastes good?

TH: AutoShare already boasts some very efficient vehicles in its fleet, including cars from smart. Are there any plans to introduce biofuel vehicles or purely electric vehicles?

KM: I am not a big fan of purely electric vehicles and they would not work in a shared situation (because of charging time and uncertain consumption rates for a particular block of time). We are looking at testing some "plug-in" hybrids and certainly are happy to test and utilize advanced vehicles. Our members, however, are still coming to terms with the fact that a hybrid costs more to purchase — and thus drive — even though it gets better fuel consumption.

TH: Do you have any statistics on how many private cars one AutoShare vehicle replaces, on average? How about members' mileage; does being an AutoShare member reduce people's overall mileage traveled by car?

KM: There is a new report from Mobility Car-sharing Switzerland which is summarized on this blog.

In general, one AutoShare vehicle replaces 8 — 10 private cars and may reduce driving per person by up to 35%. AutoShare members are driving almost 300,000 km per month (about 186,000 miles) these days, which is much lower than if 40% of them owned their own cars.

TH: Long-term, where do you see car-sharing programs fitting in, in terms of reducing traffic congestion and pollution?

KM: They are an important tool in the box. Cities face real issues in transportation: it is a very ugly issue, yet moving goods and services and people is the bloodflow of a city. Car-sharing can't solve it all but certainly can help more people live and work without owning a car (helping to support better public/private transit systems in the future).

TH: In trying to reach as many people as possible about environmental issues, it often requires compromise and the ability to listen to other interests. In your personal involvement with AutoShare and Evergreen, what approach works best in dealing with other parties that may have other priorities aside from the environment?

KM: What is nice about car-sharing is that our customers love us, without any "preaching". It's the reason that I left Evergreen (day-to-day) — I was burned out from fundraising. Working in the environment — raising awareness, raising money, and often having to separate yourself from the mainstream acceptance of the status quo — is extraordinarily difficult. I certainly applaud those that can keep doing it, day after year. Perhaps it is why a lot of young people work in the area, because it demands so much energy and sacrifice.

To address the question, obviously, everyone loves a "win-win". Certainly some organizations — like Evergreen — have a lot of positive benefits that most people can see, so it just takes time and the right approach to influence decision makers and other stakeholders. We do need the "noise makers" too though and I just encourage everyone to work professionally and with an "end" in mind, not just a "means". For instance, my personal peeve is one interpretation of "Critical Mass" which has people biking around in circles in an intersection stopping traffic; counter-productive in my mind. Let's have a huge mass of bikers "blocking" car traffic on their way to work, school, etc., but not just pissing people off and looking like the stereotype.

TH: How do you view competition in the "green" sector? Ostensibly, the more green businesses the better for society but business is also about competition. When it comes down to it, is there anything to prevent "green" businesses from slipping into non-green practices to get a leg up on the competition?

KM: Yes, cutting corners once competition hits is always a possibility — but ways to measure and note this will grow too. The green market place is a bit of a "chicken or egg" situation, where demand pulls supply, but without supply, people continue with their old habits. The bleeding edge folks — like me & AutoShare — do a lot of the hard work and once interest picks up, someone like Wal-Mart steps in with organics (forcing the little stores to focus on what they can do better but certainly reducing profit margins after years of hard work.)

TH: What inspires you to be part of so many organizations which put the environment as a priority?

KM: I took a trip to East Asia after university and one day, on a "hippie paradise island", I looked behind the grass huts to see a growing mountain of plastic water bottles. Somewhere on this trip, I noticed my impact and having eaten from the mango tree of awareness, it is tough not to be involved in one way or another. I went to business school, so I could enjoy the double-reward of solving problems through a business.

TH: How do you balance your commitments to AutoShare and Evergreen as well as your personal life?

KM: Luckily I have a great team and I worked a lot in the first years when I was single, or single-like. Now with a little kid and a full family life that includes animal rescue work with my partner, I can't work 80+ hours a week. Balance is key.

TH: What other goals are out there for you?

KM: I would love to find the time to pursue some other ideas, more yoga & bike riding, more art. The usual!

Kevin McLaughlin is President of AutoShare, Toronto's first car sharing network. AutoShare currently has over 3,500 people sharing cars for their business and personal driving needs.

[Interview conducted by Lien Thoo.]

Tags: Canada | Car Sharing | TH Interview | Toronto | Transportation

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