Car-Sharing – Good for the Environment and the Budget

Car-sharing reduces the expense of transportation. Photo: Courtesy I-Go Car Sharing

Car-sharing reduces the expense of transportation. Photo: Courtesy I-Go Car Sharing

Car-sharing is an emerging transportation trend that can reduce both your carbon and cash emissions in a single card swipe.


We thought so.

I-Go cars have permanent parking spots near public transportation. Photo: Courtesy I-Go Car Sharing

The concept of car sharing originated in Switzerland in the late 1980s and migrated to North America by way of Quebec City in 1994, according to Kevin McLaughlin, publisher of Toronto-based, an industry resource website. “Car-sharing offers city dwellers who don’t require a vehicle to get to work an alternative to owning a private car,” he explains.

“About 80 percent of the expense of owning a car is fixed cost that you’ll pay whether you drive or not. If there’s a car sitting out front, you’ll find yourself using it more to justify the expense — even if it’s just to go a few blocks. Car-sharing makes it possible to kick the car habit.

“If you drive less than 5,000 miles a year, this is going to save you money. Also, if you no longer own a car, you’re going to walk or ride your bike those few blocks. So you end up living a healthier lifestyle.”

The benefits to the environment are obvious. “For each car put into service, anywhere from 5–20 cars are taken off the road,” McLaughlin told BPGL. “It’s difficult to quantify; different studies report different results. But there’s no question that car sharing reduces car ownership and use.”

Car sharing is best suited to transit-oriented big cities where the car-share companies can link to public transportation. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) — a Chicago-based not-for-profit devoted to making urban communities more livable and environmentally sustainable — introduced car-sharing in its hometown. With support from the city and from its tree-planting, bike-riding mayor, Richard M. Daley, CNT won funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for an initial two-year pilot project in 2002. They launched I-Go Car Sharing in 2004, with 250 members; five years later, there are 14,000 members. With service in dozens of Chicago neighborhoods and two suburbs, and a fleet of more than 200 low-emission and hybrid vehicles, I-Go Car Sharing is gaining ground as an alternative to car ownership and a supplement to public transportation, while helping to position Chicago at the forefront of the environmentally responsible transit movement.

Sharon Feignon climbs into an I Go hybrid car. Photo: Courtesy I-Go Car Sharing

Committed to providing convenient, reliable, and affordable service throughout the Chicago area, I-Go promotes the idea that everyone in the region should have good transportation options without having to own a car. “We’d like to see Chicago’s public transportation become the premier system in the world,” explains I-Go CEO Sharon Feigon.

“An integrated system that provided seamless transfers between all the transit entities, car sharing, and auto rental could allow us to reduce car ownership and get vehicles off the road. In addition to the environmental benefits — which are significant — we could lower transportation costs for families, freeing up resources that could be used to increase home ownership and business development in the region.”

Things are moving in the right direction. In January 2009, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and I-GO Car Sharing launched their joint smart card program: a single card that can be used to gain access to I-GO vehicles and ride the CTA. Individuals who meet each program’s eligibility requirements receive a card that can be used both to ride the CTA and to unlock their reserved I-GO vehicle. Currently, there are I-GO cars at nine “L” stations (Chicago parlance for the elevated rail system), with plans to expand to more this year. Nearly every car in I-GO’s fleet is within walking distance of a CTA rail or bus stop.

Transportation Cost Savings

How successful has this model proven thus far? According to Feigon, I-Go research has shown that one of their cars can take 17 cars off the road, while at the same time increasing the use of public transportation by up to 3 times per week. The study indicates that nearly half of I-Go members who owned cars when they joined sold their cars after six months of participation, and more than half reported they either postponed buying a car or sold a car prior to joining.

The cost of car ownership in the Chicago area is considerable — “about $7000,” Feigon says. “We’ve already demonstrated that we can cut these costs in half.”

How It Works

Qualifying drivers can rent by the hour or by the day. Photo: Courtesy I-Go Car Sharing

Qualifying drivers can rent by the hour or by the day. Photo: Courtesy I-Go Car Sharing

Prospective members with qualifying driving records get the green light to join and select from different plans that best suit their driving needs. According to online member reviews, pricing is most advantageous for people who have need of a car for a few hours a day a few times a month. Members typically log into the web-based reservation system, which transmits the reservation data to the vehicle.

Using their I-Go Smart Card, the member unlocks the car, which is parked at a permanent, dedicated location, and retrieves the ignition key from a keypad console device in the glove compartment. The typical trip lasts about 3–4 hours, charged at hourly rates. Day rates are available for trips of longer duration. The cost of the trip is charged to the credit card on file. I-Go pays for the gas and insurance. When the gas gauge dips below ¼ tank, the member is required to fuel up, and the cost of gas is credited to their I-Go account. I-Go cleans and services the vehicles.

As one might expect when unsupervised humans interact with technology and each other, there can be system glitches, but member feedback is generally quite favorable.

The Road to the Future – PHEV and All-Electric Car Sharing

Car-sharing is seen as an ideal application for Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) and all-electric vehicles, because the system is decentralized, and shared cars typically cover short-duration, short-distance trips. I-Go currently has two plug-ins and is working with the City of Chicago to gain access to recently installed solar-powered charging stations, which power the city’s fleet of electric vehicles. The use of solar canopy technology to deliver electricity to the power grid, which is then used to charge shared PHEVs and electric cars, is a combination one-two punch with enormous potential to reduce carbon emissions and improve urban environments.

Car Shares from Coast to Coast

Car-sharing companies in cities across North America are in the process of building a network to offer members from other car-shares access with no annual membership fees. Among other companies that I-Go works closely with are CityCarShare San FranciscoPhilly Car  SharehOur Car Minneapolis/St. Paul, and AutoShare in Toronto.

As of July 2009, according to Susan Shaheen of the Transportation Sustainability Center at University of California at Berkley, more than 377,000 members of 42 programs in the U.S. and Canada share more than 9,800 vehicles. As awareness and availability of these programs accelerate, these numbers have nowhere to go but up.

Caryn Green
Contributing Writer
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)