Mobility sharing in the urban century

Opportunities and restraints

Sharing a lift in a car or lending your own vehicle is a practice that, in some way, has always been a feature of private motorised mobility, although for a long time restricted to the informality of primary relationship groups (the family, neighbours, work colleagues, friends, etc.). Over time, situations such as slugging (i.e. the early forms of car-pooling organised in American cities) had already started to become an integral part of urban mobility policies in the 1970s, particularly in some cities like Washington, Houston and San Francisco. Since the 1980s-1990s, these practices have become a new, increasingly efficient, model of collective mobility through the spread and evolution of digital technologies (from geolocalisation to fast mobile connections).

The more relevant the potential of shared mobility appears, the more widespread the use of private vehicles as the main method of urban and non-urban transport. According to Eurobarometro data, 66% of Italians use the car every day, surpassed only by Eire (68%) and Cyprus (85%), well above the European average (50%) or countries like France (59%), Germany (50%) and Spain (39%). For its part, urban public transport tends to be self-supporting only in the largest urban areas where it covers at least 30% of motorised movements.

According to ‘Pendolaria’ data, mobility on rail is very unbalanced locally so an increase in passengers has only been recorded in a few regions like Lombardy (+1.3%), Puglia (+1.9%) and Emilia-Romagna (+3%) while there have been more consistent falls in many others such as Abruzzo (- 11%) and Calabria (-31%), also due to a consistent reduction and constant increases in fares, also reaching peaks of +41%, in all local situations. Therefore, in the Italian scenario, the clear preference for the private car is more of a constraint than a free choice, and this coercive nature becomes the litmus paper of a new dualism/inequality, both regional and social, also accelerated by the policies discouraging access to town centres (through increases in parking costs, the provision of restricted traffic areas, etc.).

Urban mobility policies look at the development of mobility sharing with great optimism and, in Italy, the trends highlight significant growth. According to ANIASA, car sharing in Italy has seen an increase in total registrations of around 650,000 units, with 11 million rentals and 4,500 fleet vehicles from 2013 to date. Rentals have grown on average by almost 17% a year. Car sharing services in Italy are flanked by at least 25 platforms offering shared mobility services in a Peer2Peer logic, and car sharing describes itself as the sector in which the highest number of business initiatives are concentrated in the whole of the Italian sharing economy. This tendency is the result of both the commitment of the Ministry of Transport to supporting these forms of mobility and a growing demand, particularly concentrated in the metropolitan areas most visited by the so-called city users (workers, students, tourists, etc.) like Milan, Rome, Turin, etc.

However, the studies carried out by the Catholic University on the subject also highlight the critical points of this success, stressing aspects often given little consideration by both companies and policy makers:

  • the ecologic reasons often used for the promotion of this type of service are more or less ignored or of little relevance for users. Reasons connected with flexibility in terms of parking or access to restricted traffic areas are more influential in car sharing. The most relevant reason for car-pooling is savings, associated with sociability, with a slight preference for this combination among drivers compared to passengers;
  • these services still concern niches of users (it is estimated that, in the best-case scenario, it concerns less than 4% of motorised movements in towns). In addition, looking at the profiles of users, it is clear that there is a strong self-selection so they appear to be mainly young employed males with a good educational level. As a result, these services are still little accessible and not particularly attractive because of the lack of adequate economic and cultural capital for most users. This point applies not only to the level of digital literacy (essential to access these services) but also the depth of the culture of co-operation and sharing necessary for these forms to be more and more widespread and integrated;
  • 90% of movements in car sharing cover between 1 and 11 km (on average 6.27 km) and last 19.28 minutes (stops excluded), data very similar to that on privately-owned cars in towns. Shared mobility users adopt diversified patterns of transport options where the private car continues to always be the main means of resolving the need to move and yet they describe themselves as not being intensive drivers. As a result, shared mobility would further reduce the use of the car, particularly among those who do not use it very much (i.e. not more than 15,000 km annually). The negative impact on public transport is comparatively less (feared by some opponents of mobility sharing and supported by some American studies). Instead, the research carried out confirms how shared mobility tends to promote public collective transport and encourages intermodality because of its flexibility and ability to develop in interstitial markets left free by other forms of mobility.

Solving these critical points must be the priority of the bodies concerned with governance of the access to towns and urban flows. It is clear that sharing is not, and cannot be, the solution to the problem of mobility in the ‘urban century’, also because it appears that its effects are all the more positive the more the solutions are able to integrate with other existing ones, with the efficiency and quality of service they can provide in different contexts. Further, managing and innovating urban mobility does not only mean acting at the level of the structure of the available transport networks but also on the mobility skills and social-cognitive factors associated with the adoption of means of movement.

Economic and cultural accessibility remains an essential point because it reaches a critical mass of users of this service.
On this topic, public policies can play a central role – from educational programmes on digital literacy for adults and the elderly, also intended to access sharing markets, the elimination of additional rates in non-central areas, applied by some providers, the planning of favourable rates for certain categories of user, the involvement of companies and employers in the promotion of internal car sharing and car-pooling programmes, as could also be done in some specific areas, perhaps valorising existing community networks such as those of the social streets, coverage of areas and times when the public service is most inadequate, and plans of types of related and integrated subscriptions through to agreements with networks of garages, vehicle service centres and car parks.

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Davide Arcidiacono

Researcher in Economic Sociology at the Catholic University of Milan. He is concerned with regulation of the economy and critical consumption. Member of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) research network and the CO-HUB Milan and Sharitaly scientific committee. He recently took part in the latest AMBROSIANEUM 2017 report, writing the essay ‘Innovare la mobilità urbana attraverso la condivisione’ (Innovating urban mobility through sharing) (Franco Angeli, 2017).