|September 04, 2013|
Car-Sharing Gears Up in German Cities
|Imagine a road trip that starts on a narrow backstreet in Rome, bathed in the rosy light of dawn. Visualize driving along roads lined with pine trees, past hill-top villages, motoring from the ocean to snow-capped mountains. Then on to Paris, London, and finally to the green hills of Scotland, stretched out before you like a giant golf course. |
Own a car, and live the dream. Climb into a cozy interior, as familiar and comfortable as your own living room. Then head out into the great unknown in search of adventure, away from everyday life, all your senses thrilling at the grand vistas, the freedom and the speed.
Matthias Lorenz-Meyer freezes these images on his computer screen with a click of his mouse. His trip from Rome to Edinburgh lasted three weeks, and required two tanks of gas. But the vehicle didn't belong to him. It belonged to Ford. He was paid handsomely for the journey -- the film was a commercial. He sold his own car, a Renault Twingo, last year. "I'm glad I got rid of it," he says. "It was a drag."
Lorenz-Meyer is an advertising model and Internet entrepreneur, not a dropout or a fanatic. He is one of the many Germans under 40 living in cities who are both a puzzle and a worry to the auto industry. The reason? They no longer care about owning their own vehicles.
In Germany, the home of the automobile and where the auto industry is still a key sector of the economy, this is almost akin to a betrayal.
Around 46 percent of people living in the capital Berlin manage without their own vehicle. In New York, the figure is as high as 56 percent. Urban residents who still have vehicles don't use them very often, either. In Munich, the average vehicle is in use for just 45 minutes a day. The rest of the time it's just sitting there costing money in insurance, tax, depreciation and probably parking fees.
Many residents of larger cities see owning their own vehicle as something they can do without, as annoying excess baggage. Vehicle sales have dropped dramatically among the target customers of tomorrow. The purchasers of new vehicles are getting older. Since 1995, the average age has risen from 46 to 52.
For young people, other things matter more. "Young people today want to be mobile, and a cell phone gives them completely different possibilities when it comes to a vehicle," says Michael Kuhndt, head of the Wuppertal Institute Collaborating Center on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP).
In the old days, the automobile was something everyone had to have. It symbolized independence and adulthood. These days, young people are geographically and virtually mobile, for which they need a mobile phone. A vehicle doesn't help them travel to Honduras, New Zealand or Vietnam.
"Mobile phones really open up the possibilities for living in various parts of the world," says Kuhndt. "Young people think of automobiles as too heavy, too much of a burden."
The auto industry, unwilling to lose its young customers, is fighting back with car-sharing -- hoping to restore interest in the automobile with an alternative payment system. Mercedes, through its subsidiary car2go, supplies Smarts in Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin and elsewhere. BMW supplies Mini Coopers, BMW 1 Series and X1s through its DriveNow program. Citroën offers the electric C-Zero through Multicity. And the German railway company Deutsche Bahn offers various models through its Flinkster system, from Fiat 500s to Volkswagen Golfs.
Usage is generally calculated on a time basis: 29 euro cents a minute with car2go, 28 cents with Multicity, 31 cents a minute with DriveNow. Customers register with one or more firms, pay a registration fee and receive an electronic chip by post. Via a smartphone app, they can find out where the closest vehicle is. When they finish their journey, they park, get out and go. The bill is then sent by email to their phone. It's an uncomplicated service that clearly works: At the end of 2011, Germany had around 260,000 registered car-sharers; at the beginning of 2013, there were already more than 450,000.
According to figures published by the Fraunhofer Institute, the number of automobiles in Germany will halve by 2050. "The cities are green, pleasant places to live, pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly; there are ample car-sharing parking spots and cycle stations at every larger transport hub," say the authors of the study "A sustainable transport vision for Germany." Even in the United States -- the No. 1 energy consumer among industrial nations -- one shared car will replace at least eight private passenger vehicles in the future, according to calculations by the study's authors.
Car-sharing is part of a social trend in which consumers prefer to share certain items with each other rather than own them. Smartphones make this possible, allowing individuals to move around the modern city and get whatever they need at different points during the day.
The trend reflects the flexibility of new lifestyles and careers. For Internet entrepreneur Matthias Lorenz-Meyer, the smartphone forms the center of his existence. For Constanze Siedenburg, graphic designer and spokesperson for the Green Party on school and sports policies in Berlin's Pankow district, life revolves around her local area and family, but as a road user she has much in common with Lorenz-Meyer. She too has sold her car and now drives vehicles that don't belong to her. The lifestyle choices of both the happily single Internet entrepreneur and the environmentally-aware mother of two illustrate what mobility in major Western cities could look like in the years to come.
More Stimulating, More Varied
On a weekday morning at 10 a.m., Lorenz-Meyer is outside his office on Torstrasse in Berlin when it starts to rain. He pulls out his smartphone and launches an app covering several different car-sharing systems. He has electronic chips for three of them. More than a hundred little dots appear on a map of Berlin, indicating available vehicles between the Charlottenburg district and the city's eastern railroad station Ostbahnhof. The closest car to him is parked on Schröderstrasse, three minutes away. The app says it's a Multicity Citroën, an electric vehicle, 86 percent charged.
He makes the reservation and sets off. On the way, as he passes a Scandinavian furniture shop, he runs into an Israeli friend called Amir, a wealthy businessman looking to expand into Berlin. "Poor but sexy" -- Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit's famous description of the city -- "was yesterday," says Lorenz-Meyer.
The Multicity Citroën is parked under a tree and birds have left their mark on its white roof. Lorenz-Meyer unlocks the vehicle with his electronic chip. He takes the keys out of the glove compartment and pushes the button to start the engine. The electric motor is almost silent, the seats a pale gray, the dashboard made of gray plastic. The vehicle goes from A to B, is clean, functional, but nothing more. "It has all the charm of a porta-potty," says Lorenz-Meyer, as he backs up the car. "Normally, new vehicles make peeping noises at least," he says, shifting into gear and setting off ahead without a backward glance.
Lorenz-Meyer looks out contentedly over the gray steering wheel. "You experience much more when you don't have your own car," he says. "It would have been pretty boring if I'd just driven out of an underground garage in a Porsche Cayenne." For example, he wouldn't know that the designer wooden boxes sold by certain Scandinavian furniture stores are totally overpriced. He wouldn't have bumped into Amir, who plans to invigorate the market in Berlin. He might be annoying any potential passengers with his bad taste in music, forcing them to listen to his old CDs. Without your own vehicle, life is more interesting -- more stimulating, more varied.
According to New York-based author Rachel Botsman, car-sharing is just the beginning of more sharing in general. From disused gardens for growing vegetables to parking lots, bicycles, tools and pets -- a shift to collaborative consumption is taking place around the globe.
Canny entrepreneurs are already getting rich on the back of this trend. Accommodation brokers Airbnb, for instance. The business idea was thought up by three Californians, who five years ago started organizing places to stay in sleeping bags on air mattresses. Now the company is worth billions. Airbnb acts as a broker for rooms in 192 countries. The rooms have little in common with traditional hotels: They are in apartments, houses, castles, igloos, tepees, old airplanes, even tree-houses. In the course of just five years, Airbnb has become the world's biggest operator, with over 350,000 available beds. Spare rooms previously used for friends are now rented out to paying customers from Airbnb.
Botsman observes a return to the old culture of the marketplace, where bartering and deals sealed with a handshake flourished, now transferred to the global village with the help of the Internet. The Internet as an easily accessible marketplace is the penultimate step in a development that started with the interlinking of information. Then came offering and sending goods: With eBay and Amazon the Internet became a mail-order house. The process continued with social networks, online communities, sharing photos, video, views and knowledge. The natural continuation is now the shared use of consumer goods.
Perhaps the most important thing in this new world of sharing is the rediscovery of an ancient social virtue: trust. When people rent out a room in their house to total strangers or lend them their tools, bicycles or sailboats in return for payment, they do so on the assumption that nothing can go badly wrong. And that if it does, the insurance will pay for the damage.
Skills, rooms, material possessions are being shared as never before, says Botsman. For her, the fact that access to things is replacing ownership amounts to a farewell to the hyper-consumption of the 20th century. An American family today owns on average twice as many things as an American family 25 years ago. Cellars and storage warehouses are full of roller-skates, drills, pets' cages, bread-making machines, old cell phones and kids' bicycles. Things that people had to have right away and couldn't live without, now rotting away in storage because nobody needs them anymore.
Constanze Siedenburg leaves her house on Marienburger Strasse in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district with a pair of garden clippers in her hand. As spokesperson for the Green Party, she's off to take down some old posters put up by her party in protest of aircraft noise in Weissensee, roughly four kilometers away. She's looking for a vehicle.
Kitty corner from her house is a Multicity car, but she's not interested. She only has the DriveNow app downloaded on her phone, a subsidiary of BMW. At 31 eurocents a minute, the vehicles are more expensive than those of Multicity and less environmentally friendly.
But for Siedenburg they have a clear advantage: They are faster and more chic. And Siedenburg likes to drive.
A Mini Cooper comes up on her screen, at No. 36 Marienburger Strasse. She heads over, only to find a builder's trailer and a plastic toilet. Back to her phone, back to the search. There's a black Mini convertible called 'Oliver' at No. 28 Winsstrasse. Siedenburg's eyes light up. She books the car. But when she presses the electronic chip on her driver's license to the windshield, nothing happens.
"How annoying, it's gone again," she says. Undeterred, she keeps pressing the button. A man runs up to her: full beard, Adidas trainers, a typical Prenzlauer Berg realtor type. Annoyed, he asks her, "Were you planning to take my car?"
Not waiting for an answer, he opens the car with his electronic chip and drives off. With old-school drivers there would have been some shouting at least. But Siedenburg is different. Her belief that she is leading the way, progressive and modern, gives her patience -- even if finding a vehicle takes a bit of time. Forty-two minutes after her search began, she finally locates a Mini parked where the app says it should be and which can be opened with her electronic chip.
Remarketing the Car
Cars are particularly good for sharing. They are among the most expensive consumer goods, but most of the time they just sit idle. Automobiles are now experiencing what happened to music ten years ago: They are being remarketed as temporary possessions.
"Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward," says American writer Mark Levine. If he's right, the change is here to stay. He believes that once the shift that turns individuals into owners is socially debunked, there is rarely any way back. The processes cannot be reversed: "Sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the eight-track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine," wrote Levine in The New York Times.
Matthias Lorenz-Meyer turns onto a small, cobbled street in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, pulling up behind a garbage truck. The road is blocked. The garbage men have disappeared and the clock is ticking -- 28 cents, 56 cents, 84 cents. Three minutes. No garbage men, just rain. Waiting is expensive with car-sharing.
The idea of getting rid of his Twingo came to Lorenz-Meyer when an app monitoring his household costs informed him that his vehicle, including repairs, parking fines, insurance, depreciation and gas, was costing him around €3,000 a year. It was by far the most uneconomical item in his life. Getting rid of it was easy, especially as he had never used it for anything other than transporting stuff -- himself included.
Lorenz-Meyer parks the Multicity vehicle, turns up the collar of his leather jacket, hurries down the sidewalk and opens the door to what looks like an alternative café from the 1970s. A green sofa saved from the trash, a poster for a kid's movie on the wall.
In fact, it's a casting agency for commercials. They are looking for an actor for the online dating agency Parship.
"Italian women look at your shoes, German women look at your wheels," he says. The women at the casting session are good-looking. The Multicity car stands outside, environmentally worthwhile but unsexy.
The Devaluation of the Car
But maybe German women will be looking at something else soon. Almost one-quarter of Germans already think it's fine to share certain products with other people, according to a study by the University of Lüneburg. Professor Harald Heinrichs has called this group "socially innovative co-consumers," i.e. collaborative consumers.
They live in cities, are middle income, well educated and value variety. They no longer consider owning things the chief good. Instead, they think that a healthy environment and good social relationships are important. The special bond with the automobile, which turned it into a status symbol, a reflection of their personality and sometimes almost a family member, no longer exists for people like these.
Maybe Germany's car-scrapping bonus, which was created to jumpstart the economy during the financial crisis, really is part of the reason, as Bremen-based academic Peter Kruse predicted. When the "Cash for Clunkers" scheme came into force in 2009, he prophesied that it would drive the "devaluation of the automobile as a consumer good." The automobile, formerly an elaborately designed cultural object, would increasingly become a simple "tool for mobility."
Whatever the case, the number of "co-consumers" is growing, and they are playing a major role in the plans of car-sharing companies. According to the study by the University of Lüneburg, they place greater value on sustainability issues (89 percent) and the social responsibility of companies (84 percent) than the modernity of their products (29 percent). In other words, it no longer has to be the latest thing.
Where Alternative Meets Pragmatic
Constanze Siedenburg turns off for Weissensee on her mission to remove the old posters. She finds four posters in total, but it takes her nearly an hour. That's not very effective. In the past, she would probably have gone by bike. But now there's DriveNow, even Greens can go back to driving cars with a clean conscience.
Siedenburg is one of the people who have turned Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district into what it is today: cleaned-up old buildings, green playgrounds, full cafés and nowhere to park. Foreign investors are snapping up property in the area, grateful for the success of the left-wing environmentally-friendly culture of renovation.
Things were very different back in the early 1990s. Alternative values were emerging in the ruins of districts such as Prenzlauer Berg -- the same values that now underpin the "socially innovative co-consumers" of the university studies. Siedenburg moved into a dilapidated house and met a community that is still together today. Now they have balconies, central heating and hot water, but they still share many things. Music, movies and kids' clothing, for example. On the first floor there is a recreation room with musical instruments.
Car-sharing is where Siedenburg's alternative, modernized, local universe meets Lorenz-Meyer's digital, pragmatic world. He was never particularly interested in communes or collectives who want to turn sharing into an ideology.
The new, Internet-based sharing is more a removal of individual boundaries than a limitation. Essentially, the new sharing is rather a luxurious affair -- a little like life in general in Prenzlauer Berg in the year 2013. Siedenburg says that she sometimes sees a Bentley or a Porsche Cayenne in her neighborhood these days. She doesn't want to own them, but she finds some of them rather lovely.
Siedenburg's sharing is not about doing without. That much is clear when she drives an almost brand-new Mini that she could never afford (or choose) to buy herself.
Then the app asks her how she rates the cleanliness of the vehicle. If it's not totally clean, she sniffs somewhat disdainfully and hits "so-so." Maybe the new luxury that surrounds her has rubbed off a bit after all.