By Corey Hélie-Masters
In urban planning and development we are seeing more and more concern over something called the “Missing Middle”. The term references the gentle density, as it’s called, often lacking in urban areas outside the core of a city. These developments, when planned for, help make neighbourhoods more well-rounded and accessible. They bridge the gap between towers and detached houses, supporting a complete community and allowing more people access to the benefits of urban areas. One of these benefits is choice in personal transportation.
When it comes to how we get around, many people think of only two camps: those with cars, and those without. In the extreme of those views, people without cars might be seen as poor or marginalized. This privileged attitude also lends itself to the thinking that public transit vehicles and bike lanes just take up space on a road meant for cars. On the other end, some don’t think cars have any place in the downtown of a city. However, the most underutilized reality is really somewhere in the middle. Just like the detached home and the 30-storey tower, there is an overlooked segment of moving people, a missing middle of transportation. What you find there is carsharing.
Personally, I’ve been carsharing for years. The premise is simple: a car is parked in a neighbourhood and people in that community use it when they need it. Everyone contributes to the cost of the car proportionally, based on how much they drive. In Hamilton we have private companies that run this service for a profit, and others like Community CarShare, a co-operative non-profit. With a carsharing service in the area, the whole community stands to benefit. You have the freedom of mobility offered by a personal vehicle but you’re also freed from the crippling cost of what you might call a money pit on wheels.
Now to be clear, this neighbourhood carshare vehicle isn’t meant to be used for commuting. It supports you for the rest of your car trips. It frees you from your own vehicle so you can ride the HSR or the nearest Sobi to get to work. The vehicle is there to give you peace of mind for transportation tasks best suited for a car; large grocery trips, visiting a friend in the next town, or driving the kids to multiple soccer practices. Now the thought of not owning a car may make us a little anxious, but when we continue to own cars for the convenience of a couple situations, for the “just in case”, we’ll continue to use them for everything.
Cars are expensive. When you add together all the ownership costs that chip away at your paycheque, even if you don’t drive it, insurance, parking, the car payments, you need to be sure a vehicle of your own is worth your hard-earned money. Even then, most cars spend more than 90% of their time parked. Carsharing is a world in which you only have to pay for the 10% of a vehicle you’re actually using.
It was eight years ago in 2009 when Community CarShare became Hamilton’s first carsharing provider. Almost a decade later, and with 25 vehicles blanketing the entire downtown of our city, the network and our usage of it still has a lot of room to grow. Imagine what Hamilton would look like if everyone in our urban areas had access to whatever car they needed. A compact hybrid for errands across the city. A pickup truck for running to IKEA in Burlington. A Minivan for just a few times a year when you need a little more room. This is the future we should be moving to. Hamilton’s LRT project, and all the other transit improvements that will take place around it, will provide a huge boost to the number of Hamiltonians who can use transit to commute. With a solid spine across the city, carsharing and transit will continue to complement each other. Once you no longer need a car for commuting, you no longer need to own your own vehicle. The key to this shift is the realization that not having a car in your driveway does not mean you will never drive again.
With all my passion for the LRT project, and my support for protected bike lanes and complete streets, you wouldn’t expect me to also be a proponent of anything with the word “car” in it. After all, isn’t the whole idea to get people out of their cars? Yes. And that’s why Hamilton needs more carsharing.
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