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Carsharing an incremental way to invite change

Waterloo Region’s plan for light rail transit is dying. Ridership numbers suggest the future of bus service to Elmira is in doubt. But there is some potential on the transportation front: carsharing.

Having garnered positive feedback from the community, Grand River CarShare is looking to extend service into Elmira.

Since an initial meeting last March, the organization continues to receive inquiries and encouragement, says member services coordinator Matthew Piggott. That being the case, Grand River CarShare will hold another meeting Tuesday night at the Elmira Library to begin solidifying plans. The better the response Tuesday night, the more likely the venture will go ahead.

“We’re looking for a large turnout. If you’re really interested in having this service, this is your time to make it out,” says Piggott, adding “bring a friend.”

If Kitchener-based CarShare does make its way to Elmira, it will start with having two or three vehicles available. Parked in accessible public locations, the cars could be rented by the hour to those who join the not-for-profit cooperative. The idea is to provide a section of the population with the benefits of car use without the downside of car ownership.

The service is aimed at a variety of users: families feeling pressure to have a second vehicle; those without cars and for whom public transit isn’t always an option; younger drivers without cars; and seniors who no longer wish to own a car, especially an older vehicle that may be starting to cost a fair bit of money to keep on the road.

“It really does apply to a wide variety of people,” he says, suggesting more of us are looking at transportation in terms of saving time, money and the environment. “We do all three.”

Take the case of a family on the fence about whether or not to buy a second car. With carsharing, he argues, that family would have access to another vehicle when they needed it, saving a bundle on the cost of buying a second car, insuring it and keeping it on the road.

Having a car available nearby on short notice provides more convenience than traditional rentals, Piggott adds.

And on the environmental front, one shared car can take the place of 10, 15 or even 20 privately-owned vehicles.

Carsharing advocates see the service as a way to augment public transportation. Those who use such services tend to walk, cycle and take transit more often, reserving the car for when it’s needed most. That might include shopping trips where bulky items need to be transported, for instance.

Advocates note that because cars are expensive to own and cheap to operate, owners have an incentive to maximize use of the car. That in turn increases external costs such as traffic congestion, infrastructure upgrades, accidents and environmental impacts. Those who use shared cars, on the other hand, tend to reduce the amount of time behind the wheel, using the car only as necessary, thus reducing those external costs.

Figures from U.S.-based Zipcar, for instance, show 90 per cent of those who joined drove 8,800 kilometres or less per year. That, the group says, adds up to more than 121 million litres of crude oil left in the ground. That’s 829 litres per member.

By filling in transportation gaps with occasional car use, Grand River CarShare also helps support the use of greener transportation modes such as transit and cycling, says Piggott.

Think of it as a bridge to a future where there are fewer cars on the road at any given time, a future all municipalities are pushing for. A future that’s at the heart of the region’s misguided light rail transit plan. We have neither the density nor the desire to forego our cars – they’re just too convenient. Actually, closer to essential. So carsharing is something that recognizes our need for vehicles while making other forms of transit more viable on those occasions when time, convenience and hauling space aren’t pressing.

Obviously, carsharing works better in higher density centres – places where you can more easily do without a car of your own – but it is catching on in the region.

Starting with a couple of vehicles in 1998, Grand River CarShare now has a dozen in K-W and Cambridge. An expansion into Hamilton last year added three more to the fleet, with demand already prompting the need for one or two more, says Piggott.

With 400 members at this point, the organization is not having a huge impact on the region’s traffic. But it’s growing. Adding another 40 or 60 members in Elmira – enough to support two or three cars there – would be another step. A small one, but, more importantly, an example of how low-cost, incremental growth can be beneficial in transportation policy.

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