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Car sharing offers part-time vehicles for full-time drivers

How would you like to drive a car without the worry? No steep loan or lease payments, hefty insurance premiums, unexpected repair bills or annual vehicle registration fees. There’s a catch, of course. You don’t actually own the vehicle you drive, which is both the beauty and the biggest drawback of Canada’s growing car-sharing movement. If you decide this suits your needs, you won’t have all the convenience of full-time car ownership, but you will eliminate some costly motoring headaches. For an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Canadians, car sharing has become a viable compromise of being car-light rather than completely car-less. People who join car-sharing organizations have access to a fleet of cars on an “as needed” basis, booking a vehicle in advance. The cars are usually left in designated drop-off areas convenient to public transit.

Car sharing is cheaper and offers more flexibility than renting a car, since vehicles can be booked by the hour as well as by the day. Vehicles are typically accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Depending on the fleet, a car-share member may be able to choose from a sedan, coupe, minivan or pickup truck. Fees are usually based on a one-time deposit (typically $500), which is refundable if the member leaves the car share without any money owing. Members are charged a monthly fee to access the fleet and charges for car use are based on an hourly rate, plus a per-kilometre fee. The car-share organization takes care of financing the vehicles, fleet insurance, maintenance, repairs and vehicle registration.

Sparing the environment and saving money are the main reasons people join car-sharing programs. According to the Canadian Automobile Association, it costs about $672 a month to drive a 2000 Cavalier 18,000 kilometres for a year, based on gas prices of 64.6 cents per litre. By contrast, the average monthly bill for members of Vancouver’s Co-operative Auto Network is about $75, says founder Tracey Axelsson. Other drivers try car sharing for different reasons. Some don’t want to keep pumping money into an old clunker but can’t justify buying a newer vehicle. Some motorists want a safety cushion after selling a second car. Owners of a home business with a modest income may sometimes need a vehicle to meet clients. Transit riders or cyclists may wish to increase their mobility and range by adding car trips. Car sharing is also popular with business people travelling from abroad and with families who occasionally need a second car. The notion of car sharing was developed in Europe, where staggering fuel prices have long been a drain on drivers. More than 100,000 European motorists share cars. In North America, however, the concept has been slower to take off. As author Katie Alvord argues in the book Divorce Your Car! (New Society), government policy and the agenda of automakers have steered motorists into a blind love affair with automobiles. Severing that relationship isn’t easy. “Because people are addicted to cars, they don’t like to think about giving them up,” notes Liz Reynolds, president of Toronto-based AutoShare, which started in October 1998. Reynolds says even AutoShare’s most frequent users don’t pay more than $3,500 a year. Despite the savings, Axelsson admits car sharing isn’t for everyone. “It’s a lifestyle change,” she notes. “If your life is such that you can’t exist without a car, then this is not going to work for you, no matter what.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.