Is Car2Go Public Transit?

Whenever I am introduced to something new that interests me, I tend to obsess over it, include it in any discussion I can, and try to critique it from all angles. Recently, I have been introduced to two such things: Car2Go and Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit, a book I highly recommend if you want to sound somewhat intelligent about public transportation.

I also signed up for a membership to Car2Go, which is a hybrid taxi/car rental/transportation service that allows you rent a Smart car, short term, for a trip inside of a certain zone, usually an urban centre. You are charged by drive time, but you  can leave the car in any valid parking area and end your trip. All you need to do is provide a driver’s license and pay the registration fee; insurance and gas is included in the cost.

So what is Car2Go (there are other companies like it, but I’ll stick with what I know)? Is it a car rental service? Is it a taxi service? Is it a public transportation service? The answer, is yes, yes, and yes, but it’s worth investigating how we might be able to look at Car2Go as a transit service.

The next question is, then, what is public transit? Let’s get this out of the way first: Public transit is not “transit that is operated by the government” or “transit that is funded by tax dollars”. The term “public” in “public transit” is that it is accessible to everyone. Walker provides the following fairly comprehensive definition:

“Public transit consists of regularly scheduled vehicle trips, open to all paying passengers, with the capacity to carry multiple passengers whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes.”

Calling Car2Go a public transit system under this definition has some problems. Car2Go doesn’t provide regularly scheduled trips by any means, since it’s an on-demand service. However there are “demand-responsive” transit services that are in development which produce a route and trip based on people’s changing demands. “Accessible Transit” does this already by providing service to those who can not use regular transit. In a sense, this first part of the definition is not a requirement of transit, but it’s a strong indicator. If something is available to you almost all the time, then it can cover the same purpose that the first part of the definition provides.

It could be argued that Car2Go can carry multiple passengers, (though only 2 at this time), and the limit is only on the practicality of the size of vehicle the company is willing to keep in service. Generally, though, Car2Go use is intended for use by individuals or small groups who are all travelling to the same place for the same purpose. In that sense, more than the one above, Car2Go fails to meet Walker’s full definition of public transit. It is also (currently) only usable by those over 19 years of age, and who have a driver’s license, which is arguably not “open to all paying passengers”.

With those above thoughts, I have perhaps convinced you that Car2Go is not public transit. But I would argue, with a double negative, that Car2Go is not not a public transit, and I’ll do so by approaching it with an indirect question: How much does Car2Go “approximate” what transit does?

In order for transit be useful to us, it needs to satisfy a number of requirements. Walker calls these the “seven demands of transit”, which is more about how to get any personal transportation service to be appealing to us. I’ll paraphrase a few of what I consider the most relevant ones to Car2Go below. Keep in mind that these demands are often how well transit can approximate a personal vehicle, while still providing the advantages economically and socially that only transit can:

  • It takes me where I want to go, when I want to go – This is where Car2Go excels, in the sense that it gives you the freedom that you have with a personal vehicle (especially the where), with one exception: It’s not always available at your fingertips when you need it. For example – in Calgary this morning (just at the start of rush hour), there were no cars available in the ring just around downtown, while there were lots of them in the downtown core. Similarly, even at the start of the evening rush hour, the cars had cleared out into the surrounding territory. In a way, Car2Go can be thought of as “very good” transit with respect to these demands, but can also be “poor” in the sense that it can be difficult to guarantee car. Interestingly, Car2Go suffers from the same “peak period” problems that transit faces – people relatively close to the core (the final destination of buses) are passed over by buses full of people from further outside the core.


Car2Go Locations at approximately (above) 7:30am and (below) 5:00pm


  • It’s a good use of my time and money – This one is arguable, however Car2Go has lower costs than a taxi, mostly because you drive yourself. If you factor in a “driver’s wage” for yourself (assuming you could do something more useful in a taxi), then it may be very similar. However, you usually don’t have to walk as far at your origin, and certainly at your destination, than you would have to walk to access a bus stop. In this way, Car2Go can “feel” like transit, because you start and end your journey by walking.
  • It gives me the freedom to change my plans – This one is a big one. Often transit systems can be complicated, run infrequently, or end their service day in a way that makes it impossible for you to be spontaneous and free, which is one of the major reasons that people don’t use transit. Car2Go provides the flexibility to change your plans, your destination, and the service is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and it likely won’t go on strike. Those are all things that give Car2Go an advantage over transit.

Perhaps you know what I’m going to say next: What about if we consider Car2Go and conventional Public Transit together?

When both of these services are available, the incentive to give up car ownership is huge. You have the flexibility of the personal vehicle, but the regular service you might need from public transit (even if it’s just a fallback). You can change your mode of transport at any time (you can even take one to the other), and you can make other spontaneous decisions: Maybe you decide to have a drink or two at the pub you visited, and decide to take transit back instead of Car2Go. There’s no hassle involved with leaving your car there and getting it later. Plus, you are contributing to lower emissions overall by sharing a vehicle with someone else.

So there, I’ve said my piece. I think Car2Go is a form of public transportation in many aspects, and when it’s combined with conventional public transit it can be a very useful and powerful service.

What do you think?

6 comments on “Is Car2Go Public Transit?”

  1. Alex Reply

    One other factor: cost. Actually raises an interesting question for you: does how much a service costs determine its status as public transit or not? I guess by your quoted definitions, it does not. But from a practical point of view, doesn’t there have to be some kind of difference between say a city bus and a taxi cab and a private limo service?

    • Willem Reply

      Ultimately, I think it comes down to the “public” factor: open to all paying passengers, and the multi-destination/multi-purpose factor: multiple passengers whose trips may have different origins, destinations, and purposes. I don’t think we should preclude high-cost transit from still being public transit, since that is simply a “willingness to pay” issue. The only problem is when the cost is so prohibitive it impedes on the ability of “all paying passengers” to access it, however I would argue that any conventional transit with a fare component does that to some portion of the population.

      Taxis/Limos are a grey area with transit, in much the same way that Car2Go is, and they are often excluded from transit demand models for that reason. In fact, they are often excluded altogether, or lumped in as “fleet” vehicles like Police, Ambulance, etc. If models are being constructed to look at “cars on the road”, then that’s appropriate, but if models are being used to predict transit/transportation mode use, then a police car is not the same as a taxi.

  2. Stephanie morin Reply

    Car to go is simply the fast food of the car renting business. Quick and easy and accessible anywhere

  3. Hermina Joldersma Reply

    I like the direction this analysis is headed. Probably others have identified similar problems with “car share” of whatever stripe (it would be a surprise if this were not so), but it would be interesting to see what CarShare itself might have to say in response.

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