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Why doesn’t car-sharing work in Edmonton?

Calgary has Car2Go while Edmonton has ...

May 12, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

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Edmonton is now North America’s largest city without a car-share
PHOTOGRAPH RYAN GIRARD

Last year, Paul Mitchell, president of Energy Systems Network, inadvertently gave Edmonton a rather dubious distinction. Mitchell introduced Indianapolis’s first car-sharing program, featuring 500 electric cars for the city of 845,000. And by doing so, he made ­Edmonton – which at 817,000 people is Canada’s sixth largest city – the biggest city north of Mexico where residents still lack a viable car-share.

In all big cities other than Edmonton, it seems, car-sharing is driving from fringe to mainstream. Kaye Ceille, president of Zipcar, predicted recently that her American company, which has operations in Vancouver and Toronto and targets people who want to use cars but do not want to own them, will exceed one million members by 2015. And anyone who thinks this trend does not apply in Alberta has to explain Calgary. The city has, since 2012, hosted Daimler’s Car2Go. It has become the company’s most successful expansion in North America: today, Car2Go has some 42,000 registrations from Calgarians to drive its fleet of 425 Smart cars.

“It really takes somebody to get behind the idea.” – Susan Shaheen, University of California

The obvious question that Calgary’s success creates is why a business case for car-sharing has yet to be made in Edmonton. Indeed, Car2Go’s corporate spokesperson, Margot Piper, confirms that Edmonton is not on the company’s radar. “Although we are certainly interested in bringing our car-sharing service to Edmonton and have received multiple suggestions to expand, we are currently not deploying any vehicles to the city,” Piper says.

“When expanding to a new city, we look into the demographics and density profiles of the suggested area and evaluate from there.” Piper also confirms that officials from the City of Edmonton have not reached out to Car2Go.

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What gives? Some factors suggest Calgary is a strong market for car-sharing companies while Edmonton is not. In Calgary, there is a relatively high proportion of commuters working downtown, where there’s a shortage of parking – the city has some of the highest parking prices in North America and the highest in Canada. Edmonton, on the other hand, sees relatively less work-based traffic downtown and has high amounts of relatively cheap parking. Still, there are other factors. Susan Shaheen, adjunct professor at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California (Berkeley), says many ingredients must come together for a car-share to take root in a city – the main one being a champion. “It really takes somebody to get behind the idea,” Shaheen says. She should know. In 1999, Shaheen started CarLink in northern California, a car-share organization that was her doctoral research but soon became a bona fide company. Other factors that can push a car-share into a city, Shaheen says, are high population density and lots of traffic congestion. Still, Shaheen notes that car-sharing has appeared in cities without these factors, such as Car To Go in Aspen, Colorado, population 6,700, or CarShare in Burlington, Vermont, population 43,000.

Regardless, a private sector champion might be down the road for Edmonton. Tyler Golly, sustainable development supervisor with the City of Edmonton, says the city views car-sharing as a “viable and important” part of the city’s future. And on that front, he says that it has recently been approached by a for-profit car-share startup. Golly refuses to name the company but says that it is seeking to emulate the technology used by Car2Go, which allows users to drive cars point-to-point. And it will have to, because while Edmonton is North America’s largest city without a car-share, it will not be investing public money to change that. “I think the way we’re approaching it is it’s like any other business that wants to open up – they’re going to go through their due diligence and then negotiate any permits that they may need to have,” Golly says.

Big Numbers

Vehicle registration per capita (the standard measure for car dependence), Edmonton

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