February 19, 2003

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Opinion

Time to sell your car

AS THE COUNTRY prepares to embark on yet another oil war, it's important not to forget the costs that our overreliance on the automobile impose on us closer to home. Air pollution, global warming, loss of habitat due to urban sprawl – our subservience to our cars is so pervasive that it's easy to lose track of just how much damage the automobile-highway-military-petroleum complex has inflicted on American society.

Overdependence on the automobile also exacts a toll on a very personal level. The average U.S. household spends 15 percent of its after-tax income to own, insure, fuel, store, and maintain a car. For low-income people, that percentage is even higher. In terms of the health impacts of pollution and the budgetary impacts of paying for car access, the costs fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

Because the physical landscape has been planned around the assumption of universal car ownership for so long, there are many destinations, from jobs and relatives' homes to basic necessities like grocery stores, that are hard or impossible to get to without a car. But as people drive more, the amount of land taken up to park cars keeps expanding, filling our cities with parking lots and literally spreading us farther apart from one another. This cannot go on.

It's time to sell your car.

This used to be a difficult life choice for many people, but it doesn't have to be anymore. City CarShare will celebrate its two-year anniversary this March. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in San Francisco now have a way to get a car when we need one, without having to own it.

City CarShare vehicles are kept all over the city (and throughout Berkeley and Oakland too), with new locations opening each month. Members reserve cars online or by phone, in about half a minute, and get billed at the end of the month.

The beauty of car-sharing is that you're only charged for the time you use the car. Unlike private car owners, who pay for their vehicles while they sit in the garage, City CarShare members pay based on how much they drive.

This means good things for San Francisco. First of all, we don't have to build enough parking spaces for every person to own a car. So far, a City CareShare membership survey shows that for every new City CarShare vehicle that gets put into service, six privately owned cars are sold. Second, the total amount of driving in the city will decrease. When people own a car, they tend to overuse it; the incremental costs of each added trip are small. When people share a car, they tend to use it only when it's the best way to do something or to get somewhere – mainly to carry heavy things or to leave the city.

And finally, we can give people of all income levels access to a car without imposing the exorbitant costs of ownership. City CarShare is doing just this thanks to a recent grant that is helping the group expand to at least four low-income neighborhoods in San Francisco and further subsidize the usage rates for members from those communities.

I believe that in the future very few people who live in cities will actually own cars. Car-sharing allows people to get whatever kind of care they want while saving a ton of money. It's just cooler than owning a car.

I think it is realistic for San Francisco – as the center of the antiwar movement in the United States – to lead the country in the abandonment of private car ownership. Selling your car is a quiet, meaningful way to align your lifestyle with your values. If you go to www.citycarshare.org, they'll make it even easier for you.

Dave Snyder is executive director of Transportation for A Livable City.