January 25th, 2011

Sharing is Caring: Why Having One Car per Person is Not Working and How We Can Change

BOSTON -

Perhaps because I live in the suburbs and share one car (by choice) with my husband I notice it more acutely; cars left in driveways, parking lots and meters for days. Since I work from home, live within walking distance to public transportation and bike whenever possible I’m able to remain fairly mobile. Truth be told, I also need to be creative and have on occasion borrowed my neighbor’s car. My situation is advantageous, I know that there are many living in the Midwest with no access to public transportation and poorly developed pedestrian infrastructure. While living in a society where we drive to the gym – borrowing someone else’s vehicle must seem preposterous. What can I say; I like to live on the edge!

Others are also taking note of our car-centric culture. Anne Lutz Fernandez a former corporate executive turned car culture critic (whom I had the pleasure to interview for this post), along with her sister, anthropologist Catherine Lutz co-wrote Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives, to explore our hidden relationship with the car. Ann explains, “The automotive industry spends more on advertising than any other sector. This investment has resulted in a remarkably successful effort to convince Americans to buy cars more often than we need to; to buy more car (in horsepower, size, weight, and gadgetry) than we need to. In 2003, the number of vehicles in the national fleet surpassed the number of Americans with a driver’s license for the first time. Today, more than 250 million cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles ply the roads as nine out of ten U.S. households own a car and most now own more than one. In the 1960’s, just 20 percent of households owned a second car; now over 65 percent do. Because sharing cars even within our own families has become anathema, at the same time that cars have grown larger, the number of people in them has declined; the average occupancy rate is 1.6 people per car.” At nearly 7B people, we would probably need to pave Earth’s entire surface to accommodate for such a demand on a global level.

One car per person is not only unnecessary it is also the least efficient use of our resources. Growing up in Eastern Europe I can recall that if each family had a small Fiat that was considered a luxury! How did we get sold on driving an empty minivans at over $3 a gallon? “The industry doesn’t just spend a lot of money; it spends it well. Ad messages effectively tap into American values, especially individualism, to persuade us that we each need our own vehicle if we are to be truly independent and have the opportunity to express our own unique personalities,” Anne adds. While I’m trying to reject the one car per person worldview, the relentless efforts of car companies seem unending. Jim Morrison, “head of Jeep marketing” touts, “It is the most luxurious, sophisticated, and safest Jeep ever built,” referring to the 2011 Grand Cherokee Overland Summit. What’s left unsaid is how often our cars are sitting in parking lots and lost opportunity cost to car payments, which according to the Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, account for as much as 17% of household overhead. I’d rather save my money for something else.

So how do we sustainably eliminate the barriers to personal mobility? How do we promote the idea of sharing our existing cars? That is essentially what RelayRides is asking. Creating a marketing plan to launch RelayRides nationwide will entail the development of a strategy designed to position the company as THE solution to our existing car problem. Their business model is appealing to those looking to lead a more sustainable, eco-conscious lifestyle, as well as to those who are cost-conscious, commitment-phobic and entrepreneurial. Identifying a mix of both on-line and of-line channels should be developed to provide visibility, credibility and a thought leadership platform. RelayRides’ success has the potential of creating a tipping point in how we view our relationship with the automobile. Those most likely to participate in the program, (both as lenders and borrowers) already understand the importance of a diversified transportation approach and should be tapped into as a target segment. Gaining  a following through social media, where a lot of early adopters can be found, is a great avenue that RelayRides should take advantage of.

By decreasing the amount of idle cars which require an enormous amount of energy and resources to produce, we have the opportunity to reclaim a lot of lost energy. I for one am vying for this concept to go mainstream, and as my neighbor Jessica will attest to, I have no problem asking to borrow her car.

Eager to learn more about our car culture? I recommend these additional books:

Photo Courtesy Stephanie Radner

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Joanna Hamblin

About Joanna Hamblin

A results driven marketing and communications professional, Joanna has over 7 years of experience in developing marketing strategies that generate leads, raise awareness and grow market share. Working with clients of various sizes and stages she’s helping to build strong foundations for the clean tech, energy, sustainability and local food verticals by developing marketing strategies that are effective, scalable and provide consistent ROI. Her specialty includes project management, web 2.0 and social media planning, event management and corporate communications. To learn more about Joanna and her work you can follow her on Twitter @GoodNatureGirl .