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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Share Tactics

Air Date: Week of

Michael Lawton reports from Germany on the emergence of car-sharing clubs. The clubs give city residents the advantages of a car when they need one without the hassle and cost of individual ownership. Twelve club members share a single car, helping to cut down on congestion, noise and pollution.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Imagine living without a car. For some city dwellers, the medically impaired, and some low-income people, of course, it's a fact of life. But for most of us it's an alien notion that threatens our sense of freedom. Our jobs, our communities, our friends and families, are so spread out, life wouldn't seem normal without an automobile. But there are down sides: traffic, smog, insurance, monthly payments, repairs. Is there a better way? Well, a growing number of people in Germany think they have the answer: car sharing. Car sharing clubs give members wheels when they need them, but help them avoid the hassle and cost when they don't. Reporter Michael Lawton is a member of a car share club in Cologne, Germany. He says it's helping to cut costs, pollution, and congestion.

(Phone rings. Conversation in German ensues.)

LAWTON: That's me, phoning the 24-hour booking service to reserve my car. I usually use public transport to get around, but I needed a car this time to get to a store which was on the edge of town. Now I've booked it. All I have to do is to go to the car's reserved parking space, which is about 10 minutes walk from home.

(Car keys jingle.)

LAWTON: Well I've just arrived at the car parking space and I've picked up the keys to the car. They're in this little safe, which is beside the car, and I have the master key to the safe, as do all the other members of the scheme. Now all I have to do is simply get in the car and drive away.

(Car door shuts; engine revs up. Drive is initiated.)

LAWTON: Straight into the kind of stop-start traffic which is typical of big city driving: no fun at all. And that's one of the reasons why the Cologne car-sharing scheme, Stadt-Auto, which means "instead of a car," has been such a success. The scheme is just 2 years old, but it already has 140 members who share 8 cars. Uli Ferber is its founder and manager.

FERBER: In Cologne we have one million people and 500,000 cars, and with our system, 12 people use one car. And it's one possibility to reduce the cars, and to reduce the kilometers.

LAUGHTON: And reduce the cost as well. Janet Berridge is one of the active members who attends the regular Stattauto meetings. She told me that she breathed a sign of relief when she got rid of her own car and joined the scheme instead.

BERRIDGE: I added up what the car had cost me, and I realized I was paying out a great deal of money per month in order to just have those 4 wheels sitting in the garage. And sometimes I didn't use the car for several days. And that seemed a very expensive luxury.

LAWTON: How often do you use the Stattauto now?

BERRIDGE: About once a month.

LAWTON: Have you got an idea of how much you save?

BERRIDGE: Oh, I would say 3- or 400 marks a month.

LAWTON: That's between $180 and $240 and that's after she's paid for all her public transport. Of course, car sharing can only work in a city like Cologne, which is fairly densely populated and with a good public transport system. Cologne's car sharing is nevertheless fairly small, but if I want to find out what the car sharing future could look like, I've got to go to Berlin.

(Sounds of heavy traffic, horns blaring.)

LAWTON: This Berlin traffic makes Cologne look like a quiet country village, and so it's no surprise that car sharing started here. Carsten Petersen founded Stattauto with his 2 brothers in 1988. Like many students, they shared a car; but because they didn't live together, they used an answering machine to keep track of its movements.

PETERSEN: And this was very successful and friends, and friends of friends, wanted to join in, and after a short period we had not only 2 very old cars but 3 and 4.

LAWTON: Now Berlin's Stattauto has 90 cars, which are shared by 1,300 people. On average, for every 15 users, 5 have given up their car to join. And the longer they are members, the less they drive. They soon realize that it's cheaper to travel by public transport, and so they only use the car when they have to. And Stattauto tries to help them make sensible decisions about the kind of transport they use.

PETERSEN: We are enemies not of cars but of private car owning. Because private car owners use their cars for any reason, and even it's completely illogical and unreasonable to use a car, but private car owners do so because they have emotional and psychological and economical relation to their cars. We want to make the decision as easy as possible.

LAWTON: Stattauto has therefore introduced its Mobile-card, which acts as a passport to integrated transportation. The Mobile-card opens the safes which contain the car keys, it's a pass for the Berlin public transport system and a charge card for taxi bookings. You can use it to get railroad tickets and book a car from a car sharing scheme in the city you're going to. You can even hire a kayak on one of Berlin's lakes. These ideas are catching on elsewhere. There are now over 45 car-sharing schemes in Europe, and there's interest in the US, too. Back in Cologne, Uli Ferber is also trying to extend Stattauto's range with a discounted rail ticket service, but he's found that for some people, Stattauto is merely a transitional step.

FERBER: Some people who had a lot of problems before they come to Stattauto, and then after one year and a half, we have some people who go out from Stattauto and now they don't need a car. And they don't need Stattauto.

LAWTON: So, as well as cutting down on pollution, Stattauto can also be seen as the nicotine tablets that help get you off automobile dependency. For Living on Earth, I'm Michael Lawton in Cologne.



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