What Is Car Sharing and How Does It Work?

Young man putting a suitcase in a car trunk

GoodLifeStudio / Getty Images

Car sharing is rapidly growing in popularity, but many people still aren't quite sure what it is, how it works, and how it compares to other methods of transportation. How expensive is it? Do you have to pay for gas? What if there's no car when I need one? What about insurance? Where do you park it when you're done? Is it really better for the environment? Does it save you money? Is it available in my area? These are all questions that we're going to answer today.

zipcar car sharing honda photo

Car Sharing vs. Traditional Car Rental

The first thing you need to know is that car sharing is a type of car rental. What makes it different from traditional car rental (Hertz, Enterprise, etc) is that it is designed to be convenient for people who want to rent cars for short periods of times (a few hours) and only pay for their usage (you are billed based on how long you have a car and the distance traveled).

Another difference with a traditional car rental that makes car sharing more practical for people who don't own a car is that it allows you to access a car at any hour, not just business hours. And because the cars are spread around town in reserved parking, chances are there's one such parking close to where you live, making it easy to walk to it.

zipcar savings calculator image

Image: Zipcar

Whether you will save money with car sharing is highly dependent on your usage. For some people car sharing will be the cheapest option, for others, it will be car rental, and for others, it will be owning a car. Zipcar, a big North-American car sharing company, has some online tools that can help you estimate how much money you could save by using car sharing.

car sharing hour car photo

How It Works

So how does car sharing work in practice? It's pretty simple, really: First, you need to figure out which car sharing operator(s) operates where you live if any. The easiest way is probably to just do a Google search for "car sharing" plus the name of where you live. If you are in a big city, your chances are pretty good. If you are in a rural area, you're probably out of luck. Another way to find a shared ride is to look at Wikipedia's list of car sharing operators by country.

Once you have found a car sharing service to join, you need to determine what conditions they put on membership. If we look at the biggest operator in North-America, Zipcar, we see that they require the member to be at least 21 years old and to have a valid driver's license (they run a driving record check, so if you have a history of reckless driving, you might not be able to get in). If you meet the requirements, it's as simple as filling out the online registration form and picking a rate plan (for example, here in Ottawa VRTUCAR has three different plans).

car sharing reserved parking photo

Once you are in, all you need to know is where the cars are parked, and how to reserve one. There will be a little variation from one car sharing service to the other, but most of the big ones will send you a membership car that can be used to unlock the cars. Locating them is simple: Go to your car sharing's website and there should obviously-titled section (something like "find cars") that shows you a map of your area with the locations of all the reserved parkings. Once you know which is closest, you can reserve a car either online or by phone -- that's how you know that there will be a car for you when you get there. If your car sharing service offer more than one model, you'll be able to choose (a pickup to haul lots of stuff, a Prius for normal driving, etc).

Once you get to the car, you usually unlock it with your membership card (the magic of RFID) and that's it. As long as you bring it back to the same parking spot in one piece, that should be all. Gas and insurance are covered in what you pay (membership fee + whatever extra you pay per hour and/or mile driven). Wasn't that simple?

zipcar car sharing parking photo

Is It Greener Than Car Ownership?

Is car sharing better for the environment than owning a car? And if so, how much? In the majority of cases where car sharing makes sense, it is indeed greener than owning a car. Depending on the location, each shared car can replace between 6 and 20 cars, and most shared fleets are recent models with the latest emission control, and many fuel-efficient options are usually available (lots of Prius hybrids, Civic hybrids, Yaris compacts, etc). So that's a good start: Fewer cars need to be manufactured, and the car sharing fleets are usually mostly composed of vehicles that are top tier when it comes to fuel economy and tailpipe emissions. Also, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles will soon be part of car sharing fleets

Another way that car sharing is green is by giving strong incentives to drive less. When you own a car, you already have very high fixed costs (car payments, insurance, maintenance, parking), so driving a bit more doesn't cost you that much more than what you are already paying. But with car sharing, the relation between what you pay and how much you drive is a lot more linear. Drive half as much, and you'll pay almost half as much (your yearly membership is fixed cost). This means that a lot fewer unnecessary trips are taken, and car sharing service members tend to walk and bike a lot more because they don't feel like "well, I have a car in the driveway and I'm paying through the nose for it, I might as well use it."

plug-in hybrids recharging photo

The Future of Car Sharing

The world is rapidly urbanizing and in the future, most of humanity will live in cities. At the same time, billions of people will want more personal mobility. If we do things right, our cities will be designed in ways that make them walkable and bikeable, and fast and efficient public transportation will provide the majority of trips.

Car sharing can complement these means of transportation. It works better in densely populated areas (ie. cities), it works better for people who have other ways to get around most of the time (ie. for the daily commute), and it is less expensive than owning a car, especially in a city. It looks like the future is bright for car sharing!