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Sharing Wheels

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Issue: 73 Section: Business Geography: West Boston, Vancouver Topics: climate change, cooperatives

November 22, 2010

Sharing Wheels

Vancouver car sharing co-op’s success spurs private competition

by Erin Empey

Photo: Emily Davidson

VANCOUVER—I fired up my 1994 Volkswagen Golf. After two weeks of sitting idle, the decrepit car filled my East Vancouver cul-de-sac with thick blue exhaust. At the time—last year—I lived on East 10th Avenue, which is practically a highway for cyclists. I hung my head in shame as I pulled away and some poor biker disappeared, hacking in the toxic plume.

It was time for that horrible car to go.

In British Columbia you can trade in your crappy car for bus passes, bike discounts or a car sharing membership. This is how I discovered the Co-operative Auto Network (CAN). Formed in Vancouver in 1996 as part of a university project, the network has since expanded from a two-car, 16-member operation to one with 240 cars and more than 7,000 members. The network has also seen the rise of Zipcar, a competing car sharing organization that operates under a traditional business model.

Tanya Paz, client relations and development director of CAN, sees a couple of advantages of running car sharing as a co-op instead of as a for-profit enterprise. Besides the availability of seed funding from local credit unions, “people feel like they have more of a sense of ownership,” which motivates members to respect the cars, according to Paz.

In the beginning, 28-year-old Tracey Axelson, CAN’s founder, struggled to have her vision taken seriously—by insurance companies, the city and financiers—as she lacked business experience. . Car sharing organizations already existed in Germany, Switzerland and Montreal, but Paz recalls critics telling the organizers of the fledgling network that on “the West Coast, people will never give up their cars.”

Car sharing works best, according to Paz, in areas where there is a combination of easy, pleasant walking, safe cycling and frequent transit. The costs are worthwhile if somebody doesn’t need to drive every day and only takes short trips. For out-of-town trips, the per-kilometre rate charged by the co-op is often more expensive than renting.

“The car co-op program has taught me that I probably need a car in the future,” said Brandy Trudeau, a former Zipcar member and current CAN member, “because of my mobility issues and the fact that there isn’t a car right outside my door.” Trudeau has arthritis and found Zipcars were not easily accessible in her neighborhood. She is content with her CAN membership for now. “I actually like being able to try different cars,” she said. “The variety of vehicles is kind of fun.”

Currently, CAN’s roaming agreements with other car sharing organizations allow members access to cars in Victoria, San Francisco and Halifax, and Paz says CAN is working on expanding to other cities.

CAN has consulted for other car sharing start-ups around the world, but staff did not expect a private car sharing organization they consulted for to become competition. Zipcar launched about 10 years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has spread to 94 American cities as well as to London, Toronto and Vancouver. Zipcar now has more than 400,000 members.

“Of course we never expected them to go to Toronto or come here,” said Paz. “But I would say that they made us grow smarter, and the amount of money that they spend on advertising has really brought a lot of members to us.”

CAN was already established in Vancouver when Zipcar arrived, so Zipcar employed a different growth strategy in the West Coast city. Paz is critical. “They don’t grow in a very sustainable manner and some of their business decisions don’t make much sense to me,” she said. Zipcar launched its Vancouver operation in 2007 with 100 cars and the expectation of expansion, but wound up culling the fleet to 80.

Whether co-operative or private, car sharing networks can boast that they help reduce carbon emissions—over three quarters of a ton per household per year, according to a June, 2010 study by the Mineta Institute at the San Jose State University.

The study acknowledges that at an individual level, emissions can increase. “There are times when it’s really nice to have a car and previously I would just suck it up or take a cab,” said Trudeau. “Now I find that instead I’m booking a car for a day and going and doing all the things I want to do. I find that I’m spending a little bit more money.”

Running a co-operative can be a challenge because it is subject to the whims of its ever-changing democratically elected board of volunteers, said Paz. Members do not necessarily have business experience. The board might request that staff use cheques instead of credit cards for business expenses, for example. “The reality of doing business today is that [using cheques] is quite a delay,” said Paz. “There are times that I’m sure the founder thinks, ‘Why didn’t I just own this myself?'”

Paz is passionate about the co-operative business model because it fosters a co-operative economy as a whole.

“It’s basically a different way of doing business, of thinking about things,” said Paz. “[Co-ops] have the heart of an NGO and the mind of a business. So you’re working for the best interests of the members, but also for the benefit of your society around you as a whole.”

Erin Empey is a Vancouver-based writer.

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