Cars for Conscience-Stricken Drivers

By Ann Brocklehurst

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, Saturday, July 17, 1993

IT’S a modern-day dilemma. Your environment conscience has persuaded you to use your car less often. But since most of the costs of car ownership are fixed, the less you drive, the less the investment pays off. And green as you’ve become, you’re not quite ready to swear off cars altogether.
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The answer to your problems may be car sharing, a service now available in several European cities and gaining in popularity fast. Berlin is a case in point.
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When the 1,200 customers of Berlin’s Stattauto GmbH need a car, truck or mini-bus, they simply phone a 24-hour hotline and make their requirements known. They pick up their vehicles from one of 18 special Stattauto parking spots scattered around the city. The keys and all the necessary papers are locked in a safe at the parking site which customers open with a special key and computerized card. At the end of the trip, they fill out forms giving the distance traveled and duration of the journey. The bill arrives every six weeks.
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“You don’t have to do anything when you’re a member except drive the car,”says Carsten Petersen, one of three brothers who founded the car-sharing company in 1990.
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“No repairs,” he added. “No insurance. No buying gas.”
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Since the only fixed costs involved in joining Stattauto are the 200 DM ($115) initiation fee, a refundable security deposit of 1,300 DM and a 10 DM monthly charge, customers have no incentive to drive more to get their money’s worth. And the less they drive, the less they pay.
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The average Stattauto customer – a well educated 32-year-old who votes Green – rents a car only once or twice a month. Although charges vary depending on the type of vehicle and when it is used, Stattauto users pay 48 pfenning per kilometer to drive an Opel Corsa compared to the 62 pfenning paid by a private owner driving the German average of 15,000 kilometers a year.
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Stattauto members also enjoy a cleaner conscience. While the cars they drive pollute just s much as those in private hands, members use fewer cars to achieve the same mobility. Stattauto’s 90 vehicles, rented on average 1.2 times per day and equipped with the latest in environmental technology, travel an annual average of 36,000 kilometers, more than double the national norm. They contribute less to traffic jams and parking chaos.
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“We’re not against cars. We’re just against private cars.”said Mr. Petersen who is also the head of the European Car Sharing organization which acts as a consultant to new businesses. ECS has members throughout Germany and in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. Car-sharing operations are currently being set up in Sweden and England.
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The expansion of the car-sharing network means that customers can also use the service away from home. Berlin customer Stefan Rohner has not found car sharing to be an economical alternative for longer trips outside of Berlin. And he is looking forward to being able to take the train to his destination and then having access to a shared car on arrival.
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One disadvantage of car sharing is that on weekends, the most popular time for borrowing, Stattauto’s prices can work out to be slightly higher than the special package deals offered by some car rental companies.
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But Stattauto also provides other services. Customers can use its “Moblicard”as a taxi credit card, there are group offers on bicycle insurance, and the company is trying to get customers discounts on train, bus and subway fares.
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With new members signing up at a rate of more than one a day in Berlin, Mr. Petersen sees it as an idea whose time has come. “I’m totally optimistic,”he said, “I think in 10-15 years, it will be a normal arrangement.”
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He concedes, however, that there is one group to whom car sharing may never appeal. “There are lots of people who really feel for their cars and our cars and our cars don’t give them that type of special feeling. A Stattauto can never be a prestige object.”