Instant mobility, no headaches Car sharing: Even in free-wheeling Germany, it has grown from idealism into a profitable industry.

Sun Journal

August 03, 1998|By Mary Williams Walsh | Mary Williams Walsh,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GRAEFELFING, Germany -- Christa Muggli sold her car four years ago and says she gets around fine without it. A dedicated environmentalist, she commutes to her Munich teaching job on the train, gets to the station on her bike and -- on the days when there are groceries to be lugged or at night when the trains aren't running -- she deploys her European secret weapon: car sharing.

Car-sharing groups keep fleets of cars parked at convenient points around the cities of northern Europe, available for users to pick up and drive nearly at will. The idea: to offer drivers the instant mobility of ownership when they need a car, and free them from most of the expense and headaches of ownership when they don't.

Take Muggli: She shares a car with 25 other householders in Graefelfing. Each has put down a refundable security deposit and pays a small monthly fee -- about $7 -- that covers maintenance and insurance. They keep the car at a designated spot behind the village hall. Whenever Muggli needs the car, she books it by phone, jumps in and drives off. Once a month, she is billed for her usage. No contracts, no repair bills, no maintenance, no hidden insurance premiums.

Muggli's organization is one of the small ones. These days, thousands of Europeans are trying car sharing, and, oddly enough, some of the greatest enthusiasts are Germans, a people famous for their purring Mercedes-Benzes, well-engineered autobahns and love of speed.

Car sharing might have begun as an idealistic movement, but these days it is maturing into a sophisticated, for-profit business, complete with mergers, stock sales and "smart" technology.

"There are software experts who do nothing but work for the car-sharing scene, two of them in Germany and one in Switzerland," says Sassa Francke, a Berlin Technical University sociologist who is writing her dissertation on driving habits. The biggest car-sharing organizations offer touch-tone automated booking, computer-chip membership cards and advanced vehicle-location technology.

Since the big Swiss and German groups started in the late 1980s, an estimated 25,000 Germans and 20,000 Swiss have signed up. In the heavily congested Netherlands, where the government subsidizes car-sharing programs, about 57,000 people participate. Networks are starting up in Austria, Scandinavia and Canada.

In a few U.S. cities, environmentalists and city planners are looking on admiringly and wondering whether this European phenomenon could catch on.

Conventional wisdom has it that car sharing won't work in the United States because the private auto has become inextricably linked with freedom, flexibility and the pursuit of happiness. Americans tend to think of their cars as second living rooms, or expressions of their personalities. And gasoline is relatively cheap.

Germans, too, tend to see car ownership as something just short of a constitutional right, and they also make statements about themselves through the size of their engines. But the streets of urban Germany have become so crowded, the price of gasoline so high and parking places so elusive that the cachet of car ownership is disappearing under a mountain of hassles.

For Germany's burned-out car owners, sharing offers a simple, but attractive, logic: The average car owner here is estimated to use the vehicle just one hour a day. The rest of the time it stands pointlessly on the pavement.

"The value of all the cars in Germany adds up to a capital stock worth hundreds of billions of marks," says Carsten Petersen, co-founder of Stattauto, a 4,000-member, 150-vehicle car-sharing company in Berlin. "If you were a businessman with a company worth hundreds of billions and you ran it just one hour per day, people would say you were crazy."

But despite the logic of pooling all these idle cars, earlier attempts at car sharing generally failed.

One large car-sharing project in San Francisco collapsed in 1985 because it had no way of checking participants' credit-worthiness and because it didn't discourage long-haul driving.

Today, U.S. car-sharing groups, where they exist at all, tend to be small and high-minded operations, structured as co-ops and tailored to the tastes of people who want to do something for the environment even at some sacrifice in personal convenience.

When Petersen and his brother Markus started Stattauto in 1990, they had two used Opel station wagons -- bought with an $11,000 loan from their father -- and a telephone answering machine. Their customers booked the cars by calling up the answering machine and playing back the whole tape, listening to everybody else's reservation messages until they found a time when a car would be free. Then they added their own booking to the tape.

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