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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Cooperative Automobile

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Michael Lawton explores a car-sharing program that has taken hold in Germany. The founders of "Stattauto," which means "instead of a car," consider private car ownership wasteful and unnecessary for many urbanites.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Imagine life without a car. It's tough to do these days, even if you live in a big city with good public transit. There's always someplace the trains or buses don't go, or don't go fast enough or frequently enough, anyway. So you get yourself a car. And once you've put all that money into it, the extra cost of actually driving it can be less than the alternative. So you end up driving places where you could get to by bus or train. And you become part of that monster that everyone curses, traffic. Renting a car only for the times when you really need one isn't a great option - it's expensive, time-consuming, bureaucratic - and often unavailable to young or lower income people. But there is another option that's starting to catch on in Germany - car sharing. Car sharing clubs give their members access to a car when they need it, but help them avoid the hassle and cost when they don't. Reporter Michael Lawton is a member of such a club in Cologne, Germany. He says they're helping to cut costs, cut pollution and cut congestion.

(Sound of telephone call)

LAWTON: That's me, phoning the 24-hour booking service to reserve my car. I usually use public transport to get around, but I needed a car this time to get to a store which was on the edge of town. Now I've booked it, all I have to do is to go to the car's reserved parking space, which is about ten minutes' walk from home. Well, I've just arrived at the car-parking space and I've picked up the keys to the car. They are in this little safe, which is beside the car, and I have the master key to the safe, as do all the other members of the scheme. Now all I have to do is simply get in the car and drive away. . .

(Sound of car starting)

LAWTON: . . . straight into the kind of stop-start traffic which is typical of big-city driving. No fun at all. And that's one of the reasons why the Cologne car-sharing scheme, Stattauto - which means "instead of a car" - has been such a success. The scheme is just two years old, but it already has 140 members who share eight cars. Uli Ferber is its founder and manager.

FERBER: In Cologne, we have one million people and 500,000 cars, and with our system twelve people use one car, and it's one possibility to reduce the cars and to reduce the kilometers.

LAWTON: And reduce the cost as well. Janet Berridge is one of the active members who attends the regular Stattauto meetings. She told me that she breathed a sigh of relief when she got rid of her own car and joined the scheme instead.

BERRIDGE: I added up what the car had cost me, and I realized I was paying out a great deal of money per month in order to just have those four wheels sitting in the garage. And sometimes I didn't use the car for several days, and that seemed a very expensive luxury.
LAWTON: How often do you use the Stattauto now?
BERRIDGE: About once a month.
LAWTON: Have you got an idea of how much you save?
BERRIDGE: Oh, I would say three or four hundred marks a month.

LAWTON: That's between $180 and $240, and that's after she's paid for all her public transport. Of course, car-sharing can only work in a city like Cologne, which is fairly densely populated and with a good public transport system. Cologne's car-sharing is nevertheless fairly small. But if I want to find out what the car-sharing future could look like, I've got to go to Berlin.

(Sound of traffic)

LAWTON: This Berlin traffic makes Cologne look like a quiet country village, and so it's no surprise that car-sharing started here. Carsten Petersen founded Stattauto with his two brothers in 1988. Like many students, they shared a car, but because they didn't live together, they used an answering machine to keep track of its movements.

PETERSEN: And this was very successful, and friends, and friends of friends, wanted to join in, and after a short period we had not only two very old cars, but three and four.

LAWTON: Now, Berlin's Stattauto has 90 cars, which are shared by 1300 people. On average, for every fifteen users, five have given up their car to join, and the longer they are members, the less they drive. They soon realize that it's cheaper to travel by public transport, and so they only use the car when they have to. And Stattauto tries to help them make sensible decisions about the kind of transport they use.

PETERSEN: We are enemies not of cars, but of private car owning, because private car owners use their cars for any reason, and even if it's completely illogical and unreasonable to use a car. But private car owners do so because they have an emotional and psychological and economical relation to their cars. We want to make the decision as easy as possible.

LAWTON: Stattauto has therefore introduced its "mobilcard', which acts as a passport to integrated transportation. The "mobilcard' opens the safes which contain the car keys; it's a pass for the Berlin public transport system and a charge card for taxi bookings. You can use it to get railroad tickets, and book a car from a car-sharing scheme in the city you're going to - you can even hire a kayak on one of Berlin's lakes. These ideas are catching on elsewhere. There are now over 45 car-sharing schemes in Europe, and there's interest in the US too. Carsten Petersen hopes to go to Oregon in the spring to explain the idea there. Back in Cologne, Uli Ferber is also trying to extend Stattauto's range with a discounted rail ticket service. But he's found that, for some people, Stattauto is merely a transitional step.

FERBER: Some people had a lot of problems before they came to Stattauto, and after one year and a half we have some people who go out of Stattauto and now they don't need a car, they don't need Stattauto.

LAWTON: So, as well as cutting down on pollution, Stattauto can also be seen as the nicotine tablets that help get you off automobile dependency. For Living on Earth, I'm Michael Lawton in Cologne.



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