This column is an opinion from Taylor Lambert, a journalist and author based in Calgary.
Carsharing returned to Calgary last month with the arrival of Montreal-based Communauto.
The news was celebrated with roughly the same fervour as car2go’s abrupt departure in 2019 was mourned. Although Communauto’s initial rollout will feature a much smaller zone of operation, smaller fleet and more restrictive parking measures than car2go, many hailed it as a step in the right direction.
Of course, that depends on where it is we’re trying to go.
The need to get around
Calgary is designed around personal automobile use. Low-density and sprawling, our urban landscape is intended to be navigated primarily by using one of the many freeways or multi-lane roads that bisect communities.
Even our allegedly most-walkable districts are not spared from the primacy of automobiles, and non-motorists must contend with crossing 20-metre widths of roadway.
Public transit, the logic goes, can never be properly implemented in this landscape. Personal automobiles thus become entrenched as the default mode of transportation. Carsharing, in theory, is meant to mitigate the worst effects of this arrangement.
On the surface, it even seems progressive: personal vehicles become available to people who might not own one, thereby providing transportation options while reducing the number of cars idly taking up space while not in use.
To understand the flaws in this logic, we have to consider the transportation goals we are trying to achieve.
The need to get around the city, for different reasons and at different times of day, is universal. So is the right to feel and be safe as we do so. But ours is a heterogeneous community, with a wide range of physical abilities, degrees of financial security, access to technology, and other important factors that influence how each of us experiences the city.
Therefore, if we were to try to define a transportation ideal to aim for, it ought to include access to safe, reliable, frequent transportation for all people.
Many are left out
This is where the shortcomings of carsharing become sharply clear.
I previously made use of car2go, and I could choose to make use of Communauto. I am able-bodied, an experienced driver with a valid licence, I live within the service zone, I have good credit and a smartphone, and though my modest income means I wouldn’t make a habit of using the service, I can afford the occasional trip.
That’s a pretty long list of personal details, but every one is mandatory — if even one of those boxes was unchecked, I would be excluded from using carsharing. Another way to put it is that carsharing only serves those who can check all of those boxes.
Excluded are those with financial insecurity or insufficient credit ratings; people who don’t have a smartphone, including many seniors; people who live or work far outside of the service zone, which only covers about three per cent of the city; and people who are unable to drive, whether due to a disability or lack of licence.
That’s an awful lot of Calgarians left outside the circle.
All right, carsharing isn’t for everyone, maybe not even for most people. But it still fills a transportation gap and gets cars off the roads, right? How can that be bad?
To answer that, we have to jump back to that ideal for a moment: safe, frequent, reliable citywide transportation for everyone. It’s a tall order. Is there anything that could possibly cover all of that?
By far the best option on any metric is a robust public transportation system: buses and trains can move more people more efficiently than private automobiles, produce lower emissions per passenger, and require less space.
Carsharing as avoidance tactic
Averting the worst effects of the climate crisis requires huge reductions in emissions and rethinking the organization of our society. In 2018, transportation accounted for a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as the oil and gas industry.
Unfortunately, generations of political leaders have underfunded Calgary’s transit system while simultaneously pursuing low-density development that maximized distances between citizens, their workplaces, schools and pretty much everywhere else they might need to go.
This is where carsharing shifts from being merely inadequate to having genuine downsides. Rather than moving us toward our ideal (or imperative, given the climate crisis), it reinforces the classist notion that public transit is for some people — other people — but not everyone.
By addressing the transportation needs of one group while ignoring everyone else, carsharing diminishes public demand for better transit. Politicians can use carsharing provided by a private corporation as cover to avoid addressing our public transit woes.
It’s worth noting that the demographic served by carsharing — particularly young and affluent professionals — has considerably more political, economic and social clout than the groups excluded. This is, of course, why their needs are being addressed.
Defenders of carsharing argue that, whatever its shortcomings, it is a genuine step toward improving transportation options and reducing reliance on private automobiles. It’s not a coincidence that the people making this case are invariably those who benefit from carsharing, never those excluded from it.
Ultimately, carsharing is an avoidance tactic that allows a privileged group to bypass the gaps in our transportation network.
Transit in Calgary is grossly inadequate, this is true. But it’s the only thing that’s going to enable us to have a viable, sustainable city in a very different and more challenging future.
It’s time we stopped accepting poor public transit as something to work around and started collectively insisting on something better for all of us.
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