Bremen, Germany jorisvo/Shutterstock.com

The city aims to get 20,000 residents using its system by 2020.

Bremen, in Northwestern Germany, could not be described as car-dependent in the North American sense of the term. In this city of 550,000, most daily journeys happen on mass transit (14 percent of all trips), on foot (20 percent), or by bike (25 percent).

But that still leaves 40 percent or so of Bremenites' mobility to driving, and officials believe the city simply has too many cars. Beyond concerns about emissions and air quality, there's also the nuisance factor, explains Michael Glotz-Richter, the city's senior project manager for sustainable mobility.

Michael Glotz-Richter

On Bremen's narrow, historic streets, he says, it's not uncommon to see cars half-hoisted on sidewalks or jutting into intersections, such is the difficulty of finding a place to park. ("Against all stereotypes about Germans and keeping the rule, this is not the case when it comes to the car—and to smoking," he says.) The practice impedes walking and eats into public space.

Rather than figure out how to park more cars, Bremen wants to persuade its citizens to share a smaller number of them. Car-sharing in Bremen began in 1990 as a tiny private club, then morphed into a small, and eventually mid-sized, business. By the late 1990s, the city saw its potential and included a car-sharing option in its seasonal transit pass, the Bremer Karte: If you paid a surcharge, you could upgrade to a Bremer Karte plus AutoCard with car-sharing privileges. But it wasn't until 2003 that the city built its first on-street car-sharing station, which required a change to local law, since such a thing was unheard of under the German highway code.

A car-sharing station with bike racks in Bremen (North Sea Region Programme/Flickr)

Today, there are about 10,000 car-share users in Bremen and 60 stations, including 14 special mobil.punkt stations that integrate car-share parking and bike racks with transit stops. The car-sharing service is provided by three private operators, Cambio being the largest.

How it works: You buy the Bremer Karte plus AutoCard, which allows you to ride city trams and buses and use the car-share system. (Think Zipcar, but integrated with your city's transit system.) Or, you can join the car-share system on its own. The monthly fee is low—usually less than 10 Euros, depending on your plan—and you pay on top of that for the hours and miles you drive. Cars must be returned to the station where they're picked up (Zipcar also has this requirement—for now. It's currently testing a one-way program in Boston.)   

Bremen's car-share scheme has won a number of international awards, and Glotz-Richter thinks the station-based model, rather than a "free-floating" system like Car2Go, underlies one of its particular successes: the high replacement rate for private cars. A user survey carried out in 2010 found that 44 percent of car-share users had a car in their household before joining. About a third of those users kept their own car, but two-thirds didn't.

The station-based model has worked, Glotz-Richter believes, because it's reliable—you can reserve a car, instead of taking your chances—and it tends to be cheaper for trips outside the city. Bremen has 210 cars in its fleet, and it's believed they have replaced more than 2,000 private vehicles (a figure that doesn't include vehicles not bought because of car sharing, Glotz-Richter points out).

In 2009, Bremen was the first city in the world to create a municipal car-sharing action plan; it hopes to have 20,000 users by 2020. It is promoting car-sharing vigorously, building 20 more mobil.punkt stations in the next year, giving developers incentives to replace standard parking with car-share spaces, and fine-tuning its fleet management, so users can always get the kind of car they need. Promotional videos made by the city show "James Bond" fleeing a Russian agent by bike and car-share. A new video will feature a mascot named Udo (an acronym for "Use it, don't own it").

Glotz-Richter has worked for the city for 20 years and has overseen the growth of its car-share program. He's something of a rock star in sustainable transportation circles, giving presentations around the world. And he is, to put it mildly, a believer. He recently told Sustainable Transport magazine that he and his wife spend about 100 Euros per month on car-sharing, as opposed to what might be 250 Euros per month for maintaining, insuring, and parking their own vehicle.

"I'm not talking as someone official [from] the city, but as a user, if I won a car tomorrow in the lottery, I would sell it the day after," Glotz-Richter says. "Because there's nothing as convenient as not owning a car."

As young people continue to prefer checking their smartphones to driving, and as automated cars get closer to market, Glotz-Richter feels confident that Bremen will surpass the target of 20,000 car-share users—still only a fraction of the population, admittedly.

But the main reason he thinks car-sharing has succeeded in Bremen has little to do with the idea's inherent merits. Bremen has a a very good transit system and an ingrained cycling culture, he explains. "We are a real cycling city, and I need a car only from time to time," he says. "Then it's really a stop-gap." The paradox of car-sharing is that it works best in places where you don't really need to drive.

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