24 December 2004

24.12.04. Don Corleone wants into carsharing: The Mafia & Sustainability

Editor's note:This one comes from a series that I scribbled on the occasion of the first World CarFree Day in 2001, published in the Grist magazine of the Earth Day Network. If it interests you enough, you can at the bottom of the article scroll to the other six in that week-long series.

Don Corleone wants into carsharing: The Mafia & Sustainability

Eric Britton Eric Britton is an international consultant, author, and founder of The Commons, a Paris-based nonprofit organization cosponsoring Earth Car Free Day.
Friday, 23 Mar 2001,PARIS, France

The phone rattled once again, but this time it was a voice that I knew all too well. "It's me," the voice rasped, "Don Corleone" (as if I could forget that voice!).

"How's things going, Rico?" (Rico?)

And without waiting for an answer, he said, "Never mind. There's a limo outside waiting to bring you here, so just leave off whatever it is you are doing and get over here. I gotta talk to you about some of those car-sharing guys."

I had almost forgotten that the Don had shown so much interest in car-sharing, but I knew that he was into diversification these days. I'll never forget the first time I mentioned the word "car-sharing" and saw that he was frowning. It was more than a year ago. He asked me what it meant, and I tried to explain. (I told him this: Car-sharing is what you get when people stop using their own cars and instead use a shared vehicle whenever they need one. Think of it as a very handy short-term rent-a-car that is right around the corner and costs a lot less than owning your own car. It works best if you live in a city that has decent public transport. There are more than 500 cities around the world today where you can join a car-share club. (See www.worldcarshare.com for details.) Then I jabbered a lot about car-sharing being such a great idea because it represents a terrific first step toward decoupling the desire to use a car and the actual ownership of the car -- an important change toward a more sustainable transportation system. And on and on.

Now, the Don is not exactly what you would call "into sustainability," but he did stop me to ask if any of these guys, the 500 (or whatever it was) car-share operations in cities around the world, made any money at what they did. I said that some did and some didn't, but that the operations are starting to become more profitable as they gain more experience.

The Don seemed to like what he was hearing, which was not surprising because he always had liked international issues. After a long pause, he said, "Tell me something, Rico. How many cars do you think there are in the world? And how much do you think those stiffs pay to keep them on the road?"

Of course, I don't like giving the Don answers on anything like that without being able to check it out first by computer, but I took the risk and gave him some ballpark figures. I told him there were something like 700 million motor vehicles on the world's roads, that the annual growth rate of new cars on the road was approximately 7 to 10 percent, and that it cost something like $7,000 per year to cover all the costs, at least in the wealthier parts of the world.

The Don is fast. Without losing a minute, he said, "Hey! Have you ever multiplied those numbers together? 'Cause if you do, you are looking at a $5 trillion price tag. That's a lot of zeros And the whole pile is growing at 10 percent a year? But I need to know another thing, too. What part of the world market do you think those car-share guys could eventually get if they got their act together?"

I had never thought about that before. Let's see. Studies suggest that car-sharing becomes a serious economic option for city dwellers who drive less than 6,200 miles in one year. Other statistics suggest that, with wide regional variations, this also happens to be the average figure for annual car travel in many places. Putting these two together would suggest that perhaps in good time, as much as one-half of the entire world of car drivers might be candidates for car-sharing.

I had the Don's attention and I could see him juggling those numbers and smiling broadly at the same time. He said, "Rico, you've given me a pretty good idea here. I'm even starting to like you. The way I see it, if you think of car-sharing as a whole new business, it could account for up to one-half of all the money that people spend in the world car market — not only for the cars themselves but also for the insurance, parking (and we like parking), fuel, and all the rest. Let's round off. Call it $3 trillion a year. That's a number, ain't it? And I, the Don, want a piece of that market. A big piece!"

That was the last time I had seen the Don, until the phone rang last night. And as I was getting into his waiting stretch limo with the armor plating and one-way bullet-proof glass (the motor was running -- as I said, the Don is not really into sustainability), I tossed my laptop into the car, just in case he wanted more background on this car-sharing stuff. With the Don, it pays to get it right the first time.

When I arrived at the great house and entered between the snarling Doberman and the usual large gentlemen with the sunglasses, I found the Don waiting for me with a glass of wine. That was nice, but I still wondered what he had in mind.

"Rico," he said, "My boys tell me that you are doing a thing called Earth Car Free Day. Is that right?"

What could I say but, "Right, Don."

"And I hear that you have asked all those carsharing guys to come in and organize open houses to invite the public in, and in general cooperate with the big guys in their cities to make sure that the Day works out for you."

I replied, "Right again, Don."

Then he said, "So here's my question: How many of these guys have already signed on to do this? My boys tell me that things are going a little slowly."

"Well Don," I whined, "this sort of thing takes time. We have just recently asked them to get involved, and they have a lot of other things to do to keep their businesses running. But the first groups have already come in, and I am sure that we will have a number of others join in."

I have rarely seen the Don so mad. "A number of others?" he roared. "I want all of them. This is a trillion dollar business and we need to get moving on it. Tell them that the Don wants them in. Or else."

He was really angry, and I think that if you are running a car-share operation anywhere in the world, that you would do well to listen to the Don. He is famous for his long arms and short temper. And you can't say that I didn't warn you.

* * *



Afterword: The good Don was also starred, with a bit of help from me, in a pretty funny 60 second video we made with a team for Shell in which we tried to sell the idea to them (successfully as it turned out since you can see their current and thriving first hands-on project at Shell Drive Deutschland in Düsseldorf at http://www.shelldrive.de/) . (I keep trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to get a copy of it for posting here. The fight continues. )


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