Do we still need our own car, or can we use car-sharing instead?

It would be a big step forward for the environment, for a liveable city and for social justice if fewer one-and-a-half to two-tonne metal cubes occupied our streets. This could be helped by public car sharing, which multiplies the use time of cars - the average car is stationary 95% of the time, according to US research (and even more in less car-dependent, denser urban Europe). The public car would reduce their number and free up a lot of space for other uses. And in terms of cost, it would make car use more affordable for a wider range of people, for those occasions when it is the only option.

However, the public car will help solve environmental and urban problems only if its users give up or do not buy their own cars. Also, they should rent a public car only when public transport, cycling and other means of transport are really not an option. Otherwise, the number of cars will increase, not decrease, and the public car will only reduce the share of greener modes of transport.

In previous articles (here and here), we have looked in detail at the benefits of the public car, and at the advantages of a station-bound service compared to a free parking one. Below, we attempt to set out the minimum requirements for a public car system that offers a full alternative to private cars. We will look at how much of this is achieved by the current public car systems in Brussels and Budapest, and how to approach the minimum required in a difficult setting such as the domestic one.

Basic services for public car schemes that replace the private car

The most basic version of the currently widespread public car services typically offers one or two types of urban cars parked randomly in the more densely populated inner areas of cities, waiting to be reserved and used (the so-called free-floating system). Reservations can be made at the earliest 15-25 minutes before use, and charges are based on a per-minute rate, so there is an incentive to free the car immediately after a single trip, usually a few kilometres, within the city.

Such systems cannot provide a reliable, practical option for transporting large quantities or masses of goods, because there may not be a car available at the shopping area and it is expensive to keep one waiting. They are not suitable for trips to other cities or out-of-town locations (or several such places in a row), multi-day trips, and for trips abroad, as it is too expensive to book a car for long periods and electric cars run out of battery power over longer distances. They are equally unsuitable for trips with a lot of luggage or small children, because luggage and child seats cannot be left in the vehicle when leaving it for longer periods. For pre-planned trips that can only be realised by car, it could be a problem if it turns out just 15 minutes before the planned departure that there are no suitable cars available in the area. Finally, we cannot transport large goods (such as furniture) ourselves because the car is too small.

The car-sharing systems available in Hungary today have already taken some steps to address these limitations, for example by introducing reduced per-minute charges for the time the car is parked but still rented, or by capping the tariff per day. But is this enough?

Users giving up their own car need a guarantee that they can easily pick up a public car at a predetermined time at a location close to them and make any journey they could make in their own car. To do this, the public car system must meet a number of requirements.

It should be possible to book the car at any time (even weeks or months) before the trip at a location close to the users (to avoid that they learn immediately before departure that the trip cannot be made with the desired type of car).

Make it easy to pick up and drop off the car, it cannot be much more complicated than managing your own car.

The minimum booking time should be no more than 15 minutes, and the maximum should be at least three weeks (so that the public car can be used to pick up a piece of furniture next door, just as much as for going on holiday).

There should be no geographical limit on use, only on return (e.g. the car can be used abroad).

Among the vehicles on offer there should also be cars that can get to any point in the country and back without a long break for charging (i.e. either high-capacity, fast-charging electric cars or petrol cars).

Make it affordable not only to drive the car, but also to keep it waiting for longer during the reservation, and to rent it for a day or several days.

(Although a private car is still rarely electric these days, a car-sharing company should be expected to offer electric car travel where it is possible for the customer.)

It is advantageous if there are optional services that are not offered by car ownership, but which can increase the attractiveness of public car systems. For example, there could be a wide range of car types for rent, from minis to vans and minibuses, to choose the most appropriate one for the purpose of the journey. In addition, in the case of free-floating systems, the car does not have to be returned to its starting point but can be left anywhere within the urban zone (i.e. it can also be used for one-way trips within certain geographical limits). Finally, the extension of public car systems to the country's major cities and major rail hubs could even serve to green the national transport network, as it would allow, for example, a customer arriving by train from another city to continue his journey in a public car picked up at a railway station, avoiding hundreds of kilometres of more polluting driving.

Based on the above, we have prepared a detailed table, available here in a new window, which examines how the car-sharing systems available in Hungary, the traditional car rental companies, and the Belgian car-sharing company Cambio perform in these respects. In comparing costs, it is assumed that the user only rents a public car for journeys that cannot be made without a car or are difficult to make, such as longer shopping trips, weekend getaways, family holidays. For daily commuting and smaller urban trips, they use public transport and public bicycles.

The table shows that while starting a reservation within a public car system is almost as easy as opening your own car, the disadvantages of traditional car rental services include the need to sign a contract each time. With Cambio in Belgium, you can know well in advance where and when you will pick up your car, thanks to a dense network of stations and a flexible booking system. With Hungarian car-sharing services, however, pre-booking is not possible beyond 15-25 minutes or is subject to a surcharge, and it is not possible to know in advance where the car will be available. For car rental companies, the problem is the small number of rental locations. There is also no Hungarian system that offers sufficient flexibility in terms of both the duration of the reservation (minimum one day for car rental companies, maximum three days for most car-sharing companies) and the geographical limitation of use (only rental cars can be taken abroad, not public cars).

However, with one exception, all providers now offer cars with a more spacious interior for families or longer journeys, some even offer quite a wide range. Electric cars are available from most operators, but only one has made them the dominant (or even the only) vehicle type. National interconnection of public car systems and rail networks is still the future in Hungary, with only some traditional car rental companies having branches in major cities outside Budapest.

In terms of costs, ShareNow, which offers a more flexible, more elite but more expensive service, is quite distinct from the price-competitive GreenGo and Mol Limo on the domestic market. A group of 4-5 adults can take a public car for a weekend trip of a few hundred kilometres at a very competitive price compared to rail.

On an annual basis, the combination of any public car system with public transport is cheaper than owning a car, although ShareNow comes close.

However, on a purchasing power parity basis, Cambio's service is still significantly more financially attractive to the Belgian than local car-sharing is to the Hungarian population. The most expensive of all is to try to arrange your travel with a traditional car rental company, which is only recommended when you do need the flexibility they offer (travelling abroad, booking more than 30 days in advance, or renting for longer than 30 days).

To sum up: unfortunately, the services of car-sharing companies in Hungary suffer from significant shortcomings, as for certain uses they only offer a partial and uncertain substitute to owning a car. They might offer extra services to overcome most of these shortcomings, but only in exchange for fees that make them cost about the same as owning a car (without the annoyances of car-ownership, but few people realise this). Yet, the Belgian Cambio demonstrates that it is possible for a car-sharing company to offer a package of services at a low price and with little compromise, so that it becomes more truly attractive to give up car ownership. For a detailed description of their service, see the box at the end of this article.

Possible solutions to the main challenge of pre-booking public cars

To be able to pre-book a public car in a predictable way, it is not enough for the operating companies to decide to offer this service. As in the case of Cambio, there is a need for a high-density network of parking spaces that can be reserved exclusively for cars of a given public car company, from which the customer can pick up the car and return it to the same place. Although some Hungarian companies can deliver the car to the customer's home, the lack of parking spaces can be a problem, and the service is offered at an extra cost. There is also the question whether the car delivery staff will use an environmentally friendly mode of transport to move on after the car is delivered.

Unfortunately, there are legal and political obstacles to reserving parking spaces for specific car-sharing companies in Budapest. The municipal parking regulations do not list these companies among the organisations for which exclusive parking spaces can be designated by the district authorities. Car-sharing companies would be ready to pay for exclusive parking spaces, and it is obvious that reducing the number of public parking spaces for private cars would also reduce car traffic in the city. A public car can replace at least ten private cars, freeing up parking spaces in the long term. However, at present, local authorities are reluctant to take the political risk of 'expropriating' parking spaces for the benefit of car-sharing companies, whose name and logo would be conspicuously displayed over parking spaces that would be vacant while cars are on the move (i.e. most of the day when the service is popular). Yet a recent survey showed that two thirds of people in the district would support converting one in every 200 parking places into car-sharing stations (creating around 35 car-sharing parking places in the district).

The municipality of the capital is planning to create a few larger micromobility points, where there are plans to reserve spaces for public cars. Yet this is unlikely to be of much help either, as these spaces will not belong to a single company, but any public car can be parked there if there is a free space. It will take more than that to run a pre-booking system.

An alternative solution could be what GreenGo is already experimenting with its small vans. They are not completely free parking, nor are they tied to specific parking spaces, but can only be picked up in certain smaller zones and returned to the same area. A similar system could be operated by covering the whole city with 500×500 metre zones and assigning cars from their fleet to them.

In this way, public cars could be booked in advance, if not always at the same place, but within reach of the place of residence. The advantage of this method is that it does not require the entire fleet of a free floating carshare company to be assigned, but only a few cars per neighbourhood. This could initially be an experimental zone with just a few neighbourhoods in the most densely populated parts of the city centre. The cars could be painted slightly differently to indicate that they are not completely free floating, so that users who see them on the street will be aware of the constraints.

The map where spontaneous reservations are made would show not only how charged the electric public car is, but also whether it is linked to a neighbourhood and, if so, how long it is available if there are already a pre-reservations on it.

Of course, it would be much better than this suboptimal solution born out of necessity if local authorities were to get fully behind carsharing and allow individual companies to set up clearly visible public car stations on their territory. It would take less time for carsharing to become a fully accepted transport mode and to win over private cars owners, if the service was advertised in the urban space not only with logos painted on the public cars, but also by a network of signposted stations with a barrier to protect empty parking spaces.

Characteristics of the Belgian Cambio car-sharing service

According to a recent newspaper article, 22,000 of Cambio's 53,000 customers are in Brussels. There are 679 stations in 67 cities, and 650 of their 1,750 cars are based in Brussels. They handle 30,000 reservations a month.

All cars can be picked up and dropped off at designated stations for 2 to 5 cars, which are set up by sacrificing a few parking spaces. As long as a car is in motion, its parking space is protected by a small barrier that can be opened with a key to prevent anyone else from parking there. The network is now so dense in Brussels that usually no station is more than 500 metres away from any given location. Of course, you have to take into account that the city is a third of the size of Budapest (see the two cities on top of each other).

The network covers the whole country, with at least one public car station near the railway station in each of the 67 cities. So, they allow for train/car intermodality, you don't have to drive all the way, just pick up a public car at a train station near your destination.

Currently, Cambio is the main public car service in Brussels, with only a smaller free-floating system alongside. Previously, ShareNow and Zipcar were also present as free-floating services, as well as Zencar, a station-based electric car-only service similar to GreenGo, but all have disappeared for various reasons.

In 2016, Cambio conducted a survey of its users in Brussels, which showed that 87% of trips were longer than 25 kilometres. 96-98% of members use carsharing once or twice a week or less, half use carsharing only once or three times a month but take public transport on average seven times a week. So, they only use a car when they really need to and use other means of transport when they don't.

The potential of using carsharing in rural areas is also illustrated by the fact that while a subscriber in Brussels uses carsharing on average twice a month, a customer in a small town of 17,000 inhabitants (Ciney) uses carsharing eight times a month, because of the more car-dependent nature of rural life.

According to the company’s website, there are three tariff packages depending on the intensity of use: €4 per month for those who drive no more than 50 kilometres once or twice a month, €8 for those who drive between 50 and 300 kilometres per month and €22 for those who drive more than 300 kilometres.

In addition, there is both an hourly and a mileage charge, both depending on the type of car you choose (ranging from a mini through a minivan all the way to an 8–9-seater minibus) and the type of subscription you have.

The hourly rate is low enough (from €1.55, or 560 forints, to €4.2, or 1,500 forints) to allow you to rent a car for longer periods, no matter how much you drive it. The mileage rate in principle follows the price of petrol and again depends on the car and the tariff package, and costs more for the first 100 kilometres than afterwards.

So, the range is from €0.2 to €0.45 (from 72 to 162 forints). It should be noted, however, that fuel is much more expensive in Belgium than in Hungary, with a litre costing the equivalent of 620 forints instead of the maximum set at 480 forints by the Hungarian government.

At Cambio, the hourly rate for bookings longer than 12 hours is converted into a fixed daily rate, so no more than 12 hours are charged per day. The maximum booking time is 22 days (which allows for a longer holiday, even abroad, as you are allowed to drive abroad). At night (between 11pm and 7am) there is no hourly rate, and the car can be booked for free.

Pre-booking does not cost any money and is not an extra option, but a standard service. Cambio's reservations can be made any time before the trip (up to nine months in advance).

The reservation is always for a specific car, not a station or a type of car within a station. The reservation therefore includes the ID of the car booked.

For Cambio bookings, you must not only specify the starting time of the booking, but also the drop-off time, which, if exceeded and someone else is unable to pick up the car because of this, will incur a penalty (€15), while the next customer who is stranded will receive a credit of the same amount.

Any number of changes can be made, and the booking can be cancelled, with no transaction costs, unless they are made within 24 hours of the start date. If cancelled within 24 hours, a fee of 30 percent of the hourly rate will be charged for the cancelled period. For example, if you cancel a reservation of 8 hours at the cheapest hourly rate available, you will be charged 8×0.53 €=4.2 €.

The same cancellation rate applies for the remaining time if you return the car before the end of the booking period.

András Tóth
volunteer of the Clean Air Action Group

This article was originally published in Hungarian in G7’s EKONOMI column.