Cooperative Transport


(Instead of Cars)

Micheal LaFond

RAIN 14-4


It’s not easy owning a car. Maintenance, repairs, parking, traffic, break-ins and accidents can be real headaches. Cars devour hard-to-earn cash. And after paying for registration renewals, insurance and permits, it seems you must drive just to get your money’s worth. With a car, you make commitments to travel distances you wouldn’t otherwise consider. So you’re stuck in the thing, unable to get outdoors even though you’re apparently outside. Many people live with just their feet, a bike and the bus, but you don’t see how you could.

For people in search of alternatives, one of the easiest ways out of auto ownership is the car co-op. A car-sharing movement, building up in Europe for several years, is now making it’s way to the New World. In a car co-op, you don’t suffer the stress of ownership. When you really need a vehicle, you can find a suitable one in the neighborhood co-op lot. The less you drive, the less you pay. And, you dramatically reduce the number of cars in your city.

In Berlin, car-sharing is synonymous with Stattauto. It began as a small initiative in 1988 in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, where economics student Markus Petersen and a few friends came together to share the expense and guilt of car ownership with each other. They looked for assistance to create a public car-sharing project, but the government wasn’t interested in their idea. They had to depend on their own vision and a few rusty old cars to get going. For two years Markus and his brother Carsten, an unemployed philosophy major, experimented and organized the project as a kind of test study.

Though Stattauto moved slowly in the beginning, after incorporating in 1990 it rapidly developed into a significant transportation alternative. Since December of 1990 it has picked up at least one new member each day. In 1992 the group grew from 500 members to 1000, and all together there are about 3,000 active car-sharers in Deutschland. Car co-ops have spread to as many as 100 cities in a growing number of European countries.

Members of Stattauto, wishing to use a vehicle, simply get on the phone and dial the reservation number. Ninety percent of the time, the callers get the car they want immediately. A variety of automobiles (as well as workbikes, which are free of charge) are distributed around 14 lots throughout Berlin, making for only a short trip to fetch them. Car keys and travel logs are found at the lots in safe-deposit boxes, to which members have magnetic card-keys. Upon returning the vehicles, the well-behaved members fill out travel reports for record keeping and accounting. Stattauto bills monthly, for kilometers traveled, hours of use, and the taxi rides that can also be billed to members’ cards. The group has a "moonshine rate" for women. Between midnight and 8am women drive free to their destination and return the car in the morning, avoiding a potentially dangerous walk in the dark.

Becoming a Stattauto member involves an investment of $600-900, (returned upon leaving the group), an initiation fee of $75, and monthly dues of $5-7.50. The costs are figured to be always just above what it would otherwise cost to use public transit. An organizational bylaw reads "as much with trains and buses, bicycles and feet as possible, and only as much with autos as necessary." Car-sharing serves its members and the environment before it thinks about making money. It’s one of the few service organiza-tions that discourages the use of it’s most lucrative service.

Another initial rule: car sharers could not be car owners. About half of the members joining Stattauto have made "painful" separations from their private vehicles. Other members generally either never owned a car, or had given them up long ago. But membership carries a great many benefits.

Stattauto’s fleet has grown to about 60 motor vehicles of all different types, such as cars, pickups, and buses, along with the workbikes. In addition, bike and luggage racks, and child seats can be checked out. The growth in membership pushed the development of car-sharing convenience technologies, such as the "Mobilcard", the magnetic card used to get into those safe-deposit boxes with the car keys. This card has Stattauto information on one side, and the other is a monthly pass for Berlin mass transit. Again, it can also be used for taxi charges.

Stattauto is committed to researching and demonstrating alternative and appropriate forms of transportation. Not only does it support the use of workbikes, but together with Atlantis, an environmental technology association, they have developed the first car-sharing lot in Germany with solar driven electric cars (E-Mobiles). On March 5th, Stattauto celebrated a high-profile opening of the first "solar service station", a set of solar panels on a roof in Kreuzberg, with a "solar pump" below in the courtyard. The panels collect energy in the daytime, sold to the city's electric power grid, and in the evening the two Stattauto E-Mobiles are recharged for the next day’s use. The pump is designed so E-Mobiles can only use as much energy as the solar panels generate. Since car-sharing is based on short urban trips, it is certain that the use of solar-fed electric cars (whose batteries have a 60km limit) will take off after these initial experiments prove themselves.

An expanding European CarSharing network (ECS) is based in Berlin, directed by Carsten Petersen of Stattauto. ECS organizations are found already in Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Austria, and are now starting up in Sweden and England. Berlin Stattauto members presently can use, without any bureaucracy, other car-sharing group's vehicles in about 70 different cities. Members can take the train to these other cities and still have a car or bike to use when they get there.

Among the lofty goals of the ECS are reductions in both the number and use of cars, and support for cooperation between car-sharing and public transportation. ECS affiliates, such as Stattauto, cannot maintain more than one vehicle for each 10 members, and the rates for car use must be above the costs for similar trips on mass transit. Car co-op members must have the right to participate in organizational decision-making. Car-sharing groups set the pricing of their services to cover overhead and are not expected to earn any profit. Although the ECS-affiliated groups have tightly-controlled finances, social and ecological objectives must come before economic ones.

Within Stattauto a Members’ Forum has been active since the beginning. It has the authority to direct spending, among other things. Stattauto, and car-sharing in other cities, is organized independently from government and bureaucracy, encouraging the participatory empowerment of the membership. ECS is similarly decentralized: a network of neighborhood-based groups that reaches across cities and countries. Stattauto organizers are committed to both ecological transportation and ecological forms of organization. It is their goal that the model of car-sharing remain comprehensible, easy for others to repeat, and broadly affordable by the public.

What are the demographics of the current car-sharing public in Berlin? The car-sharing pioneers in Kreuzberg were younger, poorer and more idealistic than the average middle-class Stattauto member of today. Today's member is 35, earns $2,000-3,000 per month, has a university degree, votes Green, is a teacher, architect or other professional, is idealistic but not Avant-garde, and is a former car owner. Stattauto is working hard to expand it’s base.

Indulging ourselves for a moment, and using some very crude numbers, let’s assume that by the year 2000 Berlin is completely converted to car- sharing, and has a population of 6,000,000. The city would then only have 600,000 cars parked on the streets instead of 2,000,000. This reduction of 1,400,000 autos represents a fantastic improvement not only in the urban ecology of the city, but a winning back of enough land to plant a million trees, or millions of flowers, fruit and vegetable plants. If the entire German population moved in the direction of car-sharing, tens of millions of autos could be scrapped. Car-sharing in the U.S. could lead to the recycling of a hundred million autos!

The German groups are trying to help out new U.S. groups with their Handbook for CarSharing Handbook that will be available next year in English with sections relevant to the American experience. The book is a must read for potential Car-sharers. (To receive notice of the book's publication, send your name and address to RAIN, PO Box 30097, Eugene, Oregon 97403.)

According to Carsten Petersen of Stattauto, there are 3 critical requirements for beginning new groups: (1) there must already exist a public transportation system, as car-sharing is only a complement to mass transit, and not a system in itself; (2) it must be expensive, or relatively so, to drive and maintain single-occupancy private cars; and (3) it must be difficult and unattractive to drive and park cars.

While the mass transit situation is somewhat embarrassing in the U.S., there’s no doubt that private auto use will continue to become both more expensive and less attractive. Despite the overwhelming cultural popularity of the automobile, U.S. cities offer fertile ground for car-sharing. And American pioneers, when they’re ready, can count on help from the Old World.

"Es geht nicht so weiter, wenn es so weitergeht."

(It can’t go on, if it keeps going this way.)

— Erich Kästner

A personal note: This story is dedicated to a girlfriend of mine, Leslie P., who died in a car accident in 1982. I’ve recently left Berlin, where I lived happily without an auto for 1 and 1/2 years, and returned to Seattle where automobiles are unfortunately still considered "necessary." In the future, life here could be a little less dangerous, and a little healthier, with car-sharing.

Michael LaFond is an architect, artist and writer researching sustainability. He facilitates a class on these issues at the University of Washington, Department of Urban Design.

This influential RAIN piece on carsharing led to a set of interviews in Berlin, a documentary, a broadly distributed start-up kit, and the Eugene Car Co-op, the first carsharing group in the US. We interviewed Dr. LaFond in 2013 about his community work in Berlin.

Above: car co-op members have access to many different vehicles: subcompacts, electric cars, station wagons, vans, buses. Below: the founders of Stattauto (Oswald, Carsten and Markus Peterson) with a workbike "Lasten-fahrrad", available for members to use free of charge.

Below: whereas the average Berlin car is driven only 55 minutes each day, Stattauto cars are used intensively, making better use of resources. At least one-fourth of the environmental damage done by cars occurs in production.

Below: A large set of rooftop solar panels recharge Stattauto's electric car fleet and pump electricity back into the utility grid. Electric cars usually cost more to purchase, but they sharply reduce in-city emissions. In the US, you can get a federal tax deduction for electric cars.