500,000 car purchases avoided in US thanks to carsharing

zipcar mini
© Zipcar

When I moved up to Chapel Hill after college, I decided to completely ditch the car. Well, almost completely. It was 2004 and I didn't know about Zipcar before moving there, but at some point in my time there I found out about this young and budding carsharing service, and the whole idea of carsharing. I wasn't going to buy a car anyway, but Zipcar certainly made my life much easier for those times when a car was really useful. (And it probably didn't hurt that one of the four Zipcar parking spots was located just outside the UNC city planning department building where I had all my classes for 1.5 years).

I've thought many times that Zipcar and other such carsharing services must be one of the key links that keeps car-free people from getting a car, or convinces car owners to ditch the car. It seems that some recent research on the matter backs me up. AlixPartners has released a study which finds that approximately 500,000 "vehicle" purchases have been avoided in the US thanks, and that's without even including the effect that similar services such as Uber and Lyft are having on such purchases. (Side tangent: a bike is also a vehicle, yet the term vehicle is often not inclusive of bikes, such as in this instance. In my own personal protest, except in quotes, I'm instead using "cars" to mean cars, light-duty trucks, vans, SUVs, crossovers, etc.)

Breaking it down, in the 10 metropolitan areas the study focused on, for each car in a carsharing program, 32 car sales were avoided, which apparently shows a much stronger impact in these central metropolitan areas than previous studies have found in the nation as a whole (logical).

"According to the study, which surveyed 1,000 licensed drivers in 10 developed metropolitan car-sharing markets in the U.S. and 1,000 drivers nationally as a control sample, car sharing in the 10 key markets appears to be displacing vehicle purchases at a rate of 32 to 1 (one car-sharing fleet vehicle displacing 32 vehicles that would have otherwise been purchased)," AlixPartners writes. "That’s more than double the rate of many studies that have focused only on national averages."

Up through 2020, AlixPartners projects that 1.2 million car sales will be avoided thanks to carsharing.

If you're curious about the 10 markets AlixPartners decided to zero in on, they were markets were carsharing had already established a fairly strong presence. Why? Because the researchers expect this trend will continue to grow and they wanted to get a good picture of the story in more mature markets. The specific markets were:

    Austin, Texas
    New York
    Portland, Oregon
    San Diego
    San Francisco-Oakland
    Washington, DC

The implication is that, if much more of the US scales up its use of carsharing like these cities have, the auto industry is going to be in a whole big world of hurt. If that's the case, it's not just a matter of whether or not we've hit peak car (it seems we have), but how steep the backside of that peak is. "The auto industry ignores or minimizes this trend at its peril," said Mark Wakefield, managing director at AlixPartners and leader of the firm’s Automotive Practice in North America.

“This study suggests that car sharing nationally could scale up as these 10 markets have, and if that happens, the impact on the traditional automotive market could be explosive.”

Getting down to the root of carsharing's success, the researchers asked respondents to rank five reasons they use carsharing. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), environmental issues was ranked last. The key reasons were the reasons why I used Zipcar rather than a rental car when I needed a car: ease of access, convenience, and economics.

The entire AlixPartners press release is worth a read. But I'll just add a little more commentary of my own.

There's still a significant portion of the population that uses the car as a personal status symbol and ego extension. However, that is not nearly as dominant in younger generations as it once was. "Hacking life," finding clever solutions that save money without diminishing convenience, and creating a new world are more popular aims. Variety is greatly valued — our greater propensity to move around is one sign of that, but so is this burgeoning "sharing economy" that allows us to have access to more while paying less. Lastly, our world is increasingly controlled through our phones and tablets. Carsharing fits perfectly into all of this. It removes many of the responsibilities of a car, and it removes most of the cost, but it still allows you to have a car when you need on. Want a car? Swipe "unlock" on your phone and get one. Not only does carsharing offer all that, but you also get to choose between a wide range of cars to fit your needs or mood. You get to be Jay Leno or James Bond.

In other words, I do expect the carsharing movement to grow, and I agree that "the impact on the traditional automotive market could be explosive.”

500,000 car purchases avoided in US thanks to carsharing
Think carsharing doesn't get people to move beyond cars? Think again.

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