Could Zipcar Actually Be Bad for the Environment?

Zipcar, the popular car sharing service, and others like it are often lauded for their environmental benefits. After all, if you can borrow a car when you need one, then maybe you won’t buy one. And if fewer people buy cars, that’s good for the environment, right?

It might be, but it depends. It depends on how car sharing affects driving behavior. Some studies have shown that just one quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with passenger vehicles are produced in the manufacturing process. Most of the emissions occur in the process of driving it. Even if Zipcar reduces vehicle ownership a bit, it might actually increase the amount of driving people do. After all, if you can borrow a car whenever you need to, you might drive more. If this is the case, the environmental impact of Zipcar could easily be negative.

I’ve not seen any really good research on what Zipcar’s impact has really been. Zipcar recently commissioned a survey in which it asked consumers about their attitudes about driving and the environment. For some reason, it completely missed the opportunity to ask the simple question: “With Zipcar, do you drive more or less than you did before?” The closest the survey came was a question worded this way:

To what extent have transportation apps (i.e. taxi apps, car rental reservations, public transportation info, car sharing, ride sharing, etc.) reduced your driving frequency?

That’s just too broad to reveal the impact of car sharing. An earlier study commissioned by Zipcar showed that 18 percent new Zipcar members sold their cars within a year of joining the service. That’s likely because most rarely used their cars to begin with: only 38 percent took five or more trips a month before they joined Zipcar. It did show that the already small number of frequent drivers dropped further, to 12 percent.

But these surveys don’t capture a potentially important effect of car sharing services: increasing demand for cars among non-car owners, because they are cheap and easy to borrow when needed.

It is quite possible that car sharing services like Zipcar actually increase driving, by making it easier for people who don’t own cars to drive one. Anecdotally, that seems to be the impact in New York City, at least among some people I know.

If you know of a proper study on the impact of car sharing on driving, please let me know. If you would like to commission one, I can get it done for you.

What do you think?



Filed under transportation, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Could Zipcar Actually Be Bad for the Environment?

  1. Real carsharing reduces ownership, which reduces driving. Some programs more than others. Here is a recent study.

    • David Schatsky

      Thanks, Kevin. This is good to see. The study is over 6 years old. It would be nice to see an updated study. Many variables will affect the results of these programs, I think, including the ease of use of the service and local driving patterns.

  2. Have you reached out to Zipcar with your suggestions? I bet they’d be interested. We get feedback all the time on our survey questions (I work at the Pew Research Center) and I personally try to welcome the critique. An example of how I turned a snarky tweet into an opportunity for conversation (which led directly to a better survey series):

    And here’s the resulting report:

  3. Another benefit to consider if you want to look beyond the impact of driving itself is a concept that ties in with car ownership itself. Less cars means less space required to ‘house’ them. Car share schemes work well where car ownership is inconvenienced. So new residential or mixed use developments that are built with less parking provision will have a greater uptake of car share should it be available. Less parking provision means less embodied emissions in construction and, if we are talking about mult-unit developments, we are also talking about less operational energy, significant quantities of energy that is normally required for lighting and ventilating parking which all too often is provided in basements and sub-basements. Modelling of these kinds of impacts is being done now for some developers in Australia…

  4. Matt

    What about the fact that if people move towards carsharing, the demand for new cars falls and (theoretically) the car companies produce fewer vehicles. That has an environmental benefit.

  5. I never actually thought of ZipCar from this perspective. It has always seemed to me that Zipcar are a great scheme who offer a good alternative to those who can’t afford to own a car.

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