The coronavirus is creating new health worries and exacerbating economic woes for the whole concept of shared cars, bikes and scooters.
Why it matters: To what degree our society doubles down on car ownership as the pandemic wears on and eventually recedes could have big repercussions for oil demand, climate change and our own daily lives.
The backstory: I’m presumably one of countless people grappling with these decisions in real time. I moved in late March from a city with a robust public transit system (Washington, D.C.) to one with a less robust one (Seattle).
- I haven’t owned a car since I moved to D.C. in 2008, and I was not planning on getting one any time soon, despite skepticism among many Seattleites that you can live in this city without one.
- Then COVID-19 hit. Like most of us, my best-laid plans made no provisions for a pandemic.
Flashback: Seattle once represented the great promise of America’s shared mobility. As a high-tech city, it became a breeding ground for mobility experiments. Over the last few years, it offered around 10 different car, ride and bike-sharing options, in addition to buses and a limited light-rail network.
Where it stands: Various financial hurdles, which began forming before the pandemic and then were exacerbated by it, have now driven many of those firms out of business and thus also out of Seattle and other American cities.
What they’re saying: Kevin McLaughlin, a veteran in the shared-mobility space, recalls creating one of North America’s first car-sharing companies in the late 1990s, called AutoShare, now owned by Enterprise Holdings.
- McLaughlin said he managed to turn a profit — but barely — due to the high costs of maintaining the fleet and other operational hurdles: “If you can’t get bums in the seat, your profit margins evaporate.”
My thought bubble: I am resisting getting a car and clinging to our shared economy despite the pandemic, largely because it's the most financially sound choice for me.
- I work remotely from my downtown apartment, eliminating the biggest need to have a vehicle (commuting). But I still need to get around for errands, hiking and socially distant park hangouts, so I use a mix of a bike and shared cars like Zipcar.
Threat level: Public transit is the biggest danger when it comes to potential coronavirus spread. Other shared mobility forms present far less risk, though doctors still urge precautions.
“I wouldn’t hesitate myself to use a Zipcar or scooter. I think the bigger danger on the scooter would be crashing the scooter than getting the coronavirus from the scooter.” — Amesh Adalja, infectious disease doctor working on pandemic policy, Johns Hopkins University
Go deeper: Read my detailed transportation plan in my full column.