Carsharing: The New Challenges and Opportunities Presented by COVID-19

by Rachel Ehrman

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world. It’s affected everyone, every business, every industry. While this time is one that is surely testing us all (hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs vanished in a few short weeks), it is also a time to pause, reflect, and reshape our work to come out of this difficult time more resilient than before. This is especially true of industries that rely on shared use when many people seek every precaution possible to avoid the virus. Despite its environmental and financial benefits, carsharing is struggling.

When COVID-19 first hit the United States, carsharing companies across the US were quick to act. For example, BlueLA temporarily suspended operations. Zipcar rolled out enhanced cleaning protocols – both increasing professional cleaning and providing reminders and guidance for users to wipe down cars – and eased cancellation fees.

On May 5-6, the mobility industry came together for the virtual National Shared Mobility Summit. The mood in the Zoom (and Slack) room was one of strength and determination, welcoming collaboration with new vigor. Attendees put their heads together, working on solutions to emerge from this pandemic stronger and more sustainable.

After lots of rumination and conversations with industry leaders, I’ve come to understand 8 key points:

1. People are hesitant to share.

With good reason, people don’t want to touch things that have been touched by other people out of a fear of spreading the virus. However, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance suggests surface transmission risk is low, plus face coverings and gloves can help allay fears (face coverings are required in shared vehicles in many states, such as New York and California).

Additionally, once drivers are in the vehicles, they are private, unlike public transit or ride hailing services where users must share a space with others. Carsharing offers the opportunity to make the environmentally and financially beneficial choice of sharing a vehicle while maintaining the same privacy and physical boundary as though it were their own.

2. Cars must be clean for people to feel safe.

If cleaning supplies are supplied in carsharing vehicles, and the vehicles are professionally cleaned daily (a practice Miocar and many other carshares have adopted), the risk of transmitting the disease is minimized.

3. To ensure deep cleaning, reduce fleet sizes and rotate vehicles.

This practice, adopted by BlueLA, helps enhance safety by taking cars out of service for deep cleaning. BlueLA temporarily suspended operations to clean all its vehicles thoroughly before re-opening with its rotating fleet solution. While this solution can make vehicle reservations quite competitive on weekends and holidays, participants understand that precautions are needed.

4. Reduce touch points.

The new reality means that contactless payment and keyless entry (through cell phones or RFID cards) will become ubiquitous. Fortunately, most carshares already instituted such protocols, minimizing the need for handling cash, cards, or sharing keys. In this regard, carshares are ahead of the curve of many other types of commerce that must redevelop their systems to go “touchless.”

5. Carsharing can provide a personal transportation service without the need to own a car.

When many are experiencing financial hardship, carsharing can be a lower cost solution than car ownership. Carsharing might even flourish as more people continue to telework and reducing their need to own their own vehicle.

Carsharing allows drivers to use cars when they need them, but not have to face the challenges of upkeep, insurance (in many cases), garaging, and general expenses associated with vehicle ownership or leasing.

6. Essential workers benefit from carsharing.

In response to COVID, some mobility providers are aiding first responders by offering free use of their service and can also provide reduced rates or shuttles. All essential workers need a fast, reliable way to get to their jobs on time.

This is especially important when jobs aren’t easily accessible via public transit, or if shifts start and end outside of transit service hours.

7. Carsharing, especially electric carsharing, decreases greenhouse emissions.

This one we’ve known for a while. Traditional carsharing has been shown to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 27%. This leads to decreased emissions and congestion, improving air quality for lots of public health benefits. All-electric fleets lead to dramatic declines in emissions.

8. The cars can be used for innovative purposes.

Along with personal use, cars can provide shuttle or delivery services. When it is safe to do so, shuttles could, for example, take healthcare workers to and from hospitals, or from housing complexes to grocery stores. There’s a whole new opportunity for shared mobility, with an urgency that wasn’t quite as pressing several months ago. Not all carshares have this flexibility (insurance plays a critical deciding role), but if they do, it presents an opportunity to expand use of vehicles.

We should never choose a service that compromises our safety. Carsharing is no different. With careful steps taken to ensure the health of users, I think carsharing has a firm place in this new world we live in.  As an industry, we are faced with an unprecedented challenge, but I am confident that we can meet it, coming up with creative and groundbreaking solutions that will transform the transportation industry to one that is more sustainable, more resilient and more equitable for many years to come.

–Rachel Ehrman is Project Manager at E4TheFuture.

Illustration: Rachel Ehrman