EVs make car sharing even better

June 30, 2021

Visit any big city, and you’ll witness how shared transportation options have grown, from electric scooters tossed along sidewalks to bike and car sharing services. These can be a (relatively) cheap and easy way to zip around city streets. But the real potential of these shared services goes well beyond cities and well-heeled urbanites. In the case of car sharing, if the program is designed strategically—including prioritizing the use of electric vehicles (EVs)—there are prospects for a triple win:  convenient transportation, lower emissions, and more affordable mobility options for under-resourced populations.

Cost savings and convenience

Car sharing has a lot going for it. Worldwide, membership in car sharing organizations like Zipcar and Getaround—which offer users access to a fleet of ready-to-drive cars, typically via an app—doubled between 2016 and 2018, to more than 30 million. People are flocking to shared cars for a lot of reasons, but the main ones are convenience and cost savings. Car sharing (which is different from car rentals or ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft) offers the benefit of using a vehicle without the high costs associated with private car ownership, like insurance, gas, maintenance, and parking. Usually, vehicles are stationed in locations like residential neighborhoods or near public transit stations and universities, making them convenient for a wide range of users.

Lower emissions

Car sharing, if done well, can also be a great way to tackle rising emissions from transportation, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Studies show that when people gain access to a shared vehicle, they may get rid of their private car or avoid buying a new one; they also tend to walk, bike, or take public transit more. This brings other cascading benefits, including reducing the overall vehicle miles traveled and lowering traffic congestion and the demand for parking—all of which help slash driving-related emissions. Overall, the research points to a decrease in net greenhouse gas emissions among car sharing members, although it can depend on the context.

When electric vehicles enter the picture, there’s no question that car sharing is a win for the climate. Over their lifetime, emissions for EVs are three times lower than for internal combustion vehicles. While specific data on the emission savings from EV car sharing aren’t available, studies show that if you replace a conventional ride-hailing vehicle (like an Uber) with an EV, this can result in three times the emission reductions compared to a conventional vehicle. When EVs are powered by clean energy, like solar and wind power, they can contribute near-zero emissions. That’s why some ride-hailing services are starting to roll-out EVs.

The equity opportunity

Car sharing also has real potential to provide more equitable access to transport. So far, car sharing companies have focused on urban centers, but rural communities can actually benefit most from these services, due to the lack of density to support traditional public transit, biking, or other options. The typical car sharing user today tends to be young, with more education, a higher income, as well as easy access to the Internet, a smart phone, and banking services. Many popular car sharing services, which rely on an app linked to a bank account, end up excluding populations like the elderly and low-income households.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If designed with these audiences in mind, car sharing presents an opportunity to provide mobility to people who may not be able to afford the high cost of owning a car, or who simply don’t have access to other good transportation options. By making these services available to more people, including in lower-income and more remote neighborhoods, we can go even further in reducing emissions. Strategies for broadening access and improving equity in car sharing services include providing subsidies for low-income users, making these services more accessible to the “unbanked” and those without smartphones, and developing more inclusive and adaptive services.

Getting car sharing right: a few examples

To optimize the potential for car sharing to both reduce emissions and meet the needs of diverse and under-resourced communities, it has to be “done right.” So far, car sharing has been mostly led by private companies. But in recent years, non-profits and governmental agencies have also gotten in on the action, forming alliances and partnerships focused on shared mobility while keeping in mind equity and the benefits of electrified transport. Here are a few examples of car sharing that tick these boxes:

  • In 2016, the City of Los Angeles, California, signed a contract for an electric car sharing pilot project aimed at serving low-income residents. As of April 2019, BlueLA had deployed 80 EVs and 26 charging stations, all located in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout Central LA. The goals of the program include: 1) recruiting at least 7,000 new car sharing users, 2) avoiding the purchase or sale of 1,000 private vehicles, and 3) reducing 2,150 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • In the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, the car-sharing nonprofit HOURCAR is developing an all-electric car sharing service and a network of charging hubs in historically underinvested communities. The EV Spot Network, set to launch this year, is a collaboration with Xcel Energy and the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and aims to add 150 shared EVs and 70 charging stations on city streets. The planning process has been largely community-driven. Based on feedback from local residents, HOURCAR has upgraded its system to approve new users quickly (within 24 hours), cut membership costs by 40 percent, and provide materials in several languages, including Somali and Hmong.
  • In Hood River, Oregon, Forth Mobility aims to show how EV car sharing can serve rural communities while also benefiting low-income residents and local businesses. The Clean Rural Shared Electric Mobility (CRuSE) Project is one of the first efforts in the country to bring lower-cost car sharing to a rural area. Under the three-year program, five EVs are stationed at affordable housing sites, the city center, and tourist destinations in Hood River. To make the program more accessible, the platform is providing iPads at the affordable housing sites to help people sign up, and is creating a Spanish version of its app. It also offers alternate payment options to support users without access to credit or banking, and tiered pricing (including subsidies) for different user groups.

Innovative transport solutions like EV car sharing are needed to help decarbonize the transport sector in an equitable way. By shifting away from private vehicles and toward less carbon-intensive (but still convenient!) modes of transport, by adding EVs to the mix, and by targeting programs at under-resourced communities, we can move even closer to that goal.


Beyond EVs: more ways to tackle transportation emissions

April 7, 2021

This article is from the April 7, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

We talk a lot about electric cars (for good reason), and how electrifying transport will help us slash the relentless rise in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Electrification is a critical piece in solving the climate puzzle, but it’s important to remember that we can’t just “electric car” our way out of the climate crisis and call it good.

A quick look at the numbers reveals the immense challenge we face. Globally, the transport sector—mainly road, rail, air, and marine transport—accounts for around a third of the world’s final energy consumption and for nearly a quarter of energy-related CO2 emissions. Still today, we depend on oil and petroleum products to meet a whopping 95 percent of our transport energy needs. Despite the important shift toward electric mobility, so far only around 1 percent of transport activity worldwide is powered by electricity (most of it non-renewable). Put simply, the transport sector is a huge fossil fuel guzzler, and we need all-hands-on-deck to mitigate its growing impact.

There’s literally no way to get to a livable, low-carbon, clean energy future without making changes to how we move ourselves and our stuff around. But at the current pace, any improvements we’re making in vehicle efficiency are more than offset by increases in the overall volume of travel, and in growing sales of larger, heavier vehicles (like SUVs). To get to zero emissions, we need to move faster in tackling the highest-emitting culprits, including privately owned cars and heavy-duty trucks, as well as aviation and shipping.

So how do we do it? Here are some of the promising “other” ways to address rising transportation emissions, many of which complement the electric revolution.

How to approach things: “Avoid-Shift-Improve”

A helpful way to bucket the many ways we can tackle transport emissions is the Avoid–Shift–Improve framework. The idea is to prioritize those strategies that “avoid” the need for motorized travel to begin with, followed by measures that support the “shift” to less carbon-intensive modes (public transit, car- and ride-sharing, walking and biking, and low-carbon freight). As much as 40 to 60 percent of the needed emission reductions can be achieved through “avoid” and “shift” strategies, including policies that limit vehicle traffic (like road pricing) and that incentivize travelers to use more efficient transport (such as creating low-emission zones in city centers). The rest of the cuts can be achieved through critical “improve” strategies, like efficient vehicle design and clean energy tech (including electric mobility). According to Project Drawdown, electric cars are the second most impactful strategy in transportation—after public transit—to slash carbon emissions.


bike and pedestrian lanes in New York City

Planning sustainable cities and managing transport demand

Key to supporting the types of “avoid” strategies that lead to reduced motorized travel is better city planning and building more livable urban communities. Here, the focus is less on supporting the movement of vehicles, and more on improving access for both people and goods through smart urban design and land use. Solutions include: remote work and carpooling; “multi-modal” planning (offering an integrated network of transport options); “complete” streets that support safe access for users regardless of how they’re traveling; and transit-oriented development and 15-minute cities, which reduce travel distances by integrating people, buildings, services, etc. All of these efforts would incentivize people to avoid driving and enable them to have cheaper, easier, and safer access to alternative transportation modes like public transit, biking, and walking (thus supporting the “shift” measures that are also needed to reduce emissions).


electric public transit bus

Rejiggering urban mobility through public transit

Critical to the shift away from high-carbon transport is building more high-quality public transport, which can move people much more efficiently than private cars. This includes more efficient (and increasingly electrified) urban rail, i.e., subways and streetcars, as well as cost-effective bus rapid transit, or public buses that travel in dedicated lanes so they can maintain a timely, set schedule. According to Project Drawdown, prioritizing public transit can bring about the biggest emission reductions from the entire transportation sector by 2050. Unfortunately, public transit is on the decline worldwide (and COVID-19 hasn’t helped), even though the benefits are clear: fewer road accidents, more equitable access to transport, and overall reductions in both congestion and emissions.

More efficient cars and trucks

Also key to reducing emissions from transportation is improving the efficiency of all those gas vehicles that can’t immediately be electrified, especially passenger cars and heavy trucks. To maximize emission reductions, countries need to adopt stricter fuel efficiency standards for internal combustion engine vehicles, and eventually to phase out these vehicles altogether in favor of electric and other vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions. In the U.S., heavy-duty diesel vehicles account for only around 4 percent of vehicles but consume more than 25 percent of all fuel. Options for boosting efficiency include retrofitting fleets to be more aerodynamic and to use anti-idling and automatic cruise-control devices, as well as designing new zero-emission models. Overall, Project Drawdown lists “efficient trucks” as the third biggest transport-related solution for reducing emissions. However, improving efficiency alone won’t cut overall energy use in transport. 


jumbo airplane jet flying in cloudy skies

Tackling aviation emissions

Another biggie is tackling air travel. Pre-COVID, commercial passenger and freight aviation contributed around 2.8 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions, and emissions from air travel were rising rapidly. Project Drawdown lists “efficient aviation” as the fourth biggest transport-related solution for cutting emissions; however, the soaring demand for air travel has offset overall gains in efficiency from innovations like improved engine designs and lighter-weight materials. Additional solutions for reducing aviation emissions include retiring older aircraft, using fuel-saving practices, and scaling up the use of sustainable aviation fuels (as the newly unveiled Aerion AS3 airliner aims to do). Shifting consumer behavior (i.e., flying less) is also key to emission cuts: in Europe, rising climate awareness has led more people to replace short-haul flights with trips via high-speed rail.


container ship sailing

Super-efficient shipping

Anyone who followed the recent saga of the Ever Given, the massive container ship stuck for nearly a week in the Suez Canal, has an inkling of the enormous scale of maritime shipping, which accounts for more than 80 percent of global trade by volume. Shipping currently contributes around 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but its climate impact continues to grow. Solutions for decarbonizing shipping include developing more energy-efficient vessels (with better hydrodynamics and fuel-saving designs), using slower operating speeds, and switching to low-carbon fuels (like biofuels or electricity-based hydrogen). In 2018, the International Maritime Organization adopted a goal of at least halving shipping’s emissions by 2050 (from 2008 levels), but progress in this area remains slow. 


High speed train in Japan

Revolutionizing rail

Last week, President Biden released a massive infrastructure proposal that included a call for an $80 billion investment in U.S. passenger rail. This would be a win-win and reflects the growing global interest in rail transport, including both high-speed inter-city rail and rail freight, which has much lower emissions and energy use than road freight. Globally, rail is the most energy efficient transport mode, and railway emissions have actually declined as train designs have improved and as more rail corridors are powered by electricity. Rail is by far the most electrified transport mode (at around 40 percent), with a growing share of this electricity coming from renewable sources. High-speed rail is considered a key solution to shift passengers away from air travel, since it’s around 3.4 times less polluting than flying.


Moving forward

Reducing transport emissions is a massive challenge, and it’s clear that transitioning to low-carbon transport requires a multi-pronged suite of improvements. It’s not just about electrification, cleaner fuels, and vehicle efficiency, but also about how we build our cities, manage transport demand, and improve overall access for people and goods. In other words, the broader “avoid” and “shift” measures are equally important as technology-based “improve” strategies, and they need to be prioritized as such. Electrifying transport will only be effective if it’s understood to be part of a broader shift toward more efficient, integrated, and low-carbon ways of moving both people and goods around the planet.