Love the environment, but want to drive? Is Berlin’s proliferation of car-sharing options a sustainable solution? Or just adding more cars to an already traffic-saturated, air-polluted city?
Many of us Berliners take a small pride in being able to live car-free. And with all the environmental problems caused by cars, you’d rather be smug than add to the smog. The Berliner Luft – contrary to popular belief, does not always freshen your breath. Its levels of nitrogen oxides regularly exceed EU mandated standards and it contains high levels of particulate matter – largely thanks to our four-wheeled friends. But then there are those moments in life when possessing one’s own automobile is undeniably attractive – like when you need to schlep your new Ikea furnishings on your bike or shuttle a pair of brats to extra-curricular commitments on a particularly nasty winter’s day. But could there be a way not to sacrifice one’s (green) values to the obvious convenience of owning a car?
The sharing dream
Car-sharing is offered by a growing spate of companies in Berlin. The principle is simple: you can reserve and unlock a car with your smartphone and then use it at your leisure for a fee of around 19-39 cents a minute, inclusive of parking, petrol and insurance. Some car-sharing companies, such as Deutsche Bahn’s Flinkster, and Oply, use station-based models, where you have to pick up and return cars to a set of fixed locations. But most enterprises in Berlin use the so-called free-floating model, where you can end your ride in virtually any legal public parking spot within the ring and a bit beyond. “The dream of the car-sharing idea is that it can lead people to do without cars of their own,” explains Alexander Schmidt, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen and an expert on urban mobility. It’s a claim often made by the car-sharing industry and their supporters: it’ll reduce the number of individual cars, hence cut traffic, hence improve the environment. A forthcoming study carried out by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology seems to corroborate the prediction: with a survey of 1280 regular Car2Go users in Berlin, they concluded that every car in Car2Go’s fleet in the city replaces up to 15.8 private vehicles, as said users opted to either sell their current cars or forgo purchasing new ones. Meanwhile, Schmidt himself gives each car-share vehicle credit for replacing roughly 10 private vehicles on average.
But these optimistic results are disputed by climate activists like Tadzio Müller. “Car-sharing programmes have ironically not lead to a reduction of the number of cars in cities. They’re used by people who wouldn’t buy cars anyway. So basically you just have a net increase in the number of vehicles,” he explains. Official stats seem to substantiate his view: between 2011/2012, when both Car2Go and DriveNow crashed the market, and 2018, the gross number of registered cars in Berlin has far from decreased, going up by more than 67,000 (from 1,135,704 to 1,202,829 cars). But then again, numbers of Berliners also increased, bringing the ratio of cars per inhabitants to pretty constant levels: around one car for every third Berliner.
But car-sharing’s environmental soundness might be evident elsewhere: it might actually reduce the amount of time potential drivers spend on the road. “We know from the empirical research that people who don’t own a car but use a shared one drive fewer kilometres per year,” states Sophia Becker, a research associate specialising in Sustainable Mobility at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. And indeed, the Karlsruhe study found that people drove around 13,700km a year when they had a private vehicle while the average Car2Go user clocked a mere 400km. Becker illustrates this phenomenon with the common reality met by young families. “Many couples, as soon as they get the first or second child, feel the need to buy a car. Studies show that once they do, they start changing their routine, driving in cases they wouldn’t have before. Car-sharing allows them to reserve driving to those situations when they really need a car, such as making a trip out to Brandenburg on the weekend.” In short, car-sharing might not have reduced the number of cars on the road, but by lowering the absolute number of kilometres driven per year, it would definitely benefit the Berliner Luft.
Open relationship: flexible but reliable
For car-sharing services to truly become a widespread alternative to ownership, some conditions need to be met… First is availability. If there isn’t a free car around when you need to pick up your child from the Kita, you won’t likely be willing to rely on car-shares alone (and your grumpy toddler would probably agree). The other factor is flexibility. Are the cars available to be used in the manner that people actually want to use them?
While these two needs weren’t always met, especially when car-sharing first started out eight years ago and there were fewer cars, the situation seems to be improving. In 2018, there were already around 3000 car-sharing vehicles in Berlin, and with three new entrants into the Berlin car-sharing market this year alone (Sixt, Oply and We Share), there will soon be 5300 free-floating car-sharing vehicles in the city, along with several hundred more station-bound cars. And as the two biggest car-sharing services, Car2Go and DriveNow merged into SHARE NOW last February, soon Berliners will soon be able to access 2600 cars in the city from a single app.
As for flexibility, a main hindrance that has stopped many from relying solely on car-sharing, has been that you usually can’t end your trips too far beyond the S-Bahn ring. Not ideal when you need to run an errand at Ikea Lichtenberg or want to relax with friends at a Brandenburg lake for the day. As a solution to this, providers have started giving users the option of renting cars for longer periods of time, at a flat rate. For example, you can rent a car from Oply or Sixt for 24 hours, with petrol and up to 200km included, from €45 and €59 euros respectively. SHARE NOW offers similar packages – three hours for €29, or 24 hours (with 200km included) from €79 – as long as you promise to bring it back inside the ring.
Taking the electric wheel
Car-sharing might be a flexible option, but as long as the vast majority of vehicles still run on gas or diesel a main factor in Berlin’s air pollution, it can’t be a convincingly sustainable option.“ An electric fleet would definitely increase the green credentials of car-sharing – mostly by benefiting the local air quality,” says Becker. Despite Germany still getting much of its energy from coal, even electric cars that are charged with this electricity from the grid have still been proven significantly more climate efficient than gasoline cars over the course of their lifetime. Yet car-sharing services still offer a disappointingly small amount of electric options. Berlin’s largest provider, SHARE NOW owned by BMW and Daimler, offers a mere 140 electric vehicles for hire – only five percent of its fleet, charged specifically with renewable energy.
It might be a much higher percentage of electric vehicles than average (in Berlin electric cars still make up for 0.2 percent of private cars), but the other 95 percent just add to the thousands of dirty exhaust fumes on Berlin’s streets. “We believe the future of car-sharing is electric; many of our users are far more fond of using the electric cars, and even use them exclusively,” says Madeline Schulze of SHARE NOW, while pointing to the lack of charging infrastructure as a primary obstacle. There are currently only about 450 public charging stations in Berlin. And with long charging times, and users wanting the convenience of dropping the cars off anywhere, it’s a key hindrance. To get around this lack of infrastructure, SHARE NOW and Sixt Share – are relying partly on Chargery, a Berlin start-up that literally peddles power to the companies’ electric cars using cargo bikes carrying large battery modules. During the four hours it takes to recharge, they also clean and service the vehicles. It’s an ingenious solution, although not one that seems particularly practical in the long-term. But the good news is, starting this year, Berlin is set to receive 1600 new charging sites for electric vehicles, including 1000 public ones placed in retrofitted lamp posts in Marzahn-Hellersdorf and Steglitz-Zehlendorf. The charging stations, supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), are part of the ‘Clear Air 2017 to 2020’ programme which aims specifically at improving air quality in German cities. Quite timely, as yet another new car-sharing service under Volkswagen’s umbrella will grace the city this April with a fleet of 1500 all-electric cars. We Share is the company’s first foray into the car-sharing market, before rolling out to other European and North American cities.
In the end, only time will tell if the growing number of car-sharing services provides a true alternative to the private model of car ownership that has dominated since the automobile first revolutionised human mobility at the beginning of the 19th century. But if you want your conscience to be clean for those occasional times where hauling your vintage Flohmarkt furniture home by bike just won’t work, then car-sharing services, especially if you can find an electric car, could be a way to have your cake and eat it too – but remember, no matter how attractive, cutting cake out of your diet remains the best way to improve your health!
BERLIN’S CAR SHARING AT A GLANCE:
A recent merger of DriveNow and Car2Go, owned jointly by BMW and Daimler. 2600 free-fl oating cars of which 140 electric (five percent) From 19 to 39 cents a minute. 24 hours with
200km included for €79 with Car2Go cars, or €109 with DriveNow cars.
1000 free-floating cars, mostly petrol, but a few are electric. The cars can also be returned to any Sixt rental car location across Germany. From 19 to 29 cents a minute, or from €59 a day.
200 station-based cars, all petrol. Geared towards hourly and daily rentals. From €6 per hour and €45 a day.
To be launched by Volkswagen in April. 1500 free-floating cars, all electric with an additional 500 following later. Prices are yet to be announced.