Reuters

Envisioning a system in which private services, transit agencies, and local businesses all share a fleet.

Car-sharing services like Zipcar can reduce car ownership up to 25 percent, at least according to one recent survey, but they're most effective in dense cities. In suburban areas, the situation gets tougher, since a car-share user might park the car somewhere without a new user nearby to pick it up. The commuter rail station is a good example: it's easy to picture someone dropping off the and riding into work, but harder to see who would use it during the day.

Ideally, then, the car-sharing service would try to arrange a reliable daytime partner. A Palo Alto-area pilot project called CarLink tested out that idea circa 2002. One group of users drove to a suburban Caltrain commuter rail station in the morning. A second group (presumably reverse commuting from the city) picked it up there and drove it to an office. A third group used the car for mid-day errands. Ultimately it wound up back at the Caltrain station and parked outside a group-one home come evening.

In some respects, CarLink was a success. The share of commuter rail travelers increased while vehicle-miles traveled and car ownership decreased. Commuters took a little more time on average to get to work, but in exchange their commute stress went down. Far less encouraging were initial calculations on whether or not such a program could be financially viable: the project made about $71,000 in a year, and cost about $342,000.

For that reason, it was suggested that potential suburban car-sharing services form partnerships with regional transit providers. The coordination makes good sense: transit agencies put some money up front now with the expectation of gaining new habitual riders in the future, while the car-sharing service breaks into the suburban commuter market. That idea is already starting to play out; Portland's TriMet recently partnered with Zipcar to offer car-sharing at three transit stations.

The success of that partnership waits to be seen, but Austria's biggest public transit provider tried something along those lines in a project that ended earlier this year called eMORAIL. Commuters drove cars from their homes in the fringes to the nearest rail station. Once dropped off, the cars were used by local businesses (postal services, mobile healthcare providers, etc) that didn't want the hassle or cost of owning their own fleets. The transit provider brokered the daytime users for eMORAIL, but you could easily see a private company assuming that role in the United States.

For the infographically inclined, the eMORAIL system looked like this:

Based on the two-year eMORAIL trial, researchers Karl Steininger and Gabriel Bachner report that a fleet of 700 shared cars serving 200 rail stations could be economically viable. (They don't try to calculate a profit, but at a social level they find that the costs of operating the carshare system are less than the current costs for commuters.) The economy at large also benefits, they argue, since the car that once sat in a parking lot all day now joins the active market in another function.

Together, CarLink and eMORAIL suggest a possible way forward for suburban commuter carshare services. A private company puts up the cars to expand the market, a transit agency puts up some initial costs to increase ridership over time, and local businesses (or offices) pay to access the fleet during the day. This isn't the far future of car-sharing — in which autonomous vehicles redistribute themselves after being dropped off to more desirable locations — but it might be a key step in the near.

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