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In a post-carbon world, CarShareHFX would be a near-universal part of Halifax’s sustainable transportation mix

"It's mostly the private sector that has solved problems," Pam Cooley tells me over breakfast at the Ardmore. Cooley is the marketing half of CarShareHFX. It's the latest venture in an impressive career of social enterprise---for-profit companies designed for the public good.

Cooley has worked to safely return Guatemalan refugees from camps in Mexico, and negotiated the inclusion of social housing and community spaces in the new Woodward's building in Vancouver's downtown eastside. With her parents aging, Cooley wanted to come home to Halifax.

Here she met Peter Zimmer, a local inventor, entrepreneur and activist. "He was obsessed with car-share," she recalls. "People with passion inspire me." She points out the window at the Quinpool traffic. "And these things will be the death of us."

Yet Cooley admits to having a lifelong love affair with the automobile. "My payback is two years without pay," she jokes.

Car sharing is not a new concept. The idea for membership-based, short-term car rentals goes back to the 1940s. The first successful citywide car-share program started in Amsterdam in the '70s and ran for more than a decade. Car-share hit North America in the early '90s, starting in Quebec, where Communauto now serves four cities. Vancouver and Toronto soon got into the act, and a mere decade later, Halifax caught on.

As Cooley puts it, the idea is to make it "really dumb to own a car" by providing a more affordable, convenient alternative. The price of membership is set low enough that many folks who can't afford to own cars can still buy into this alternative.

With an unreliable, under-funded public transit system, weak bike culture and a rural population of about 90,000 people spread over a land base of 5,500 square kilometres, car-share seems like a natural for HRM. But Cooley says that as the national car-share industry grows 30 percent a year business in Halifax has been slower than expected.

She remains undaunted. "We have over 250 members and growing," she says. "Over the weekend 10 new people joined," most of them gearing up for spring and summer road trips. Each paid a $200 membership fee and can now rent one of nine vehicles for $9 an hour, or $10 during peak hours. Cooley says that every 100 CarShare members amounts to 30 fewer cars on the road.

But the company's most important target area for growth is corporate membership. "Our goal is to have all three levels of government using it during the day," Cooley says.

Capital Health is already a member, and after two years of contract negotiations the provincial government has finally signed on. This development is huge because the provincial government has about twice as many departments as CarShareHFX currently has cars. "We need to expand," Cooley acknowledges.

She is also negotiating a pilot project with Nova Scotia Power, but HRM itself has been a holdout all along, preferring to maintain its own fleet and adding the occasional Smart car.

Still, CarShareHFX's expanding corporate memberships are building toward a critical mass, in which downtown employees can leave their cars at home or, better yet, get rid of them. Instead they can ride the bus to work and use CarShare cars during the day for business meetings. If it works, companies save money on employee parking costs and can instead provide tax deductible bus passes.

The vision is that this critical shift in downtown car culture ripples outward to the burbs and rural areas, with CarShareHFX cars eventually available in every neighbourhood. But for that to happen, Cooley says the business "needs a champion everywhere," in every hub and emerging hub of the region.

It would help if car sharing were part of a region-wide transportation strategy. "It's a non-subsidized way to build another transit option," Cooley says, "part of the mobility mix, or eco-combo of public transit, rebates on bikes and walking shoes, and CarShare."

An idea like that might seem like pie in the sky coming from an NGO worker without a track record of implementation. But Cooley has that track record, and wants to work with the municipality to make Carshare part of a legitimately sustainable transit system.

Ultimately, though, Cooley expects issues beyond her control to catalyze change. "People will get smarter as oil prices rise---CarShare will become the norm."

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