We were always a good American car owning family. My uncle was a Vice President at Ford, in charge of paint. He was hardly a devout Catholic, but in Pine Lake circles he was known as the Pope of Paint. He died last year. So now I guess he's the Saint of Paint.
He fathered a rambunctious Republican five Ford brood. Even though our branch of the family lived in Montreal, my mom always got the family discount, so my proto yuppie parents usually owned two.
I remember my uncle on a weekend he came to Montreal. Driving me around in a long white Lincoln, he literally elbowed me in the ribs and asked.
"Do you like rock music?"
"Sure, uncle J."
"Bet you can't guess who's renting our house right now for $1000 a day."
"I'm sure I can't"
"Ever heard of....The Eagles?!"
"Uh, Yes I have."
"Glenn Frey. Living in our house, right now."
"Wow. Like, aren't you worried he's going to trash the place?"
Another memory is the weekend after September 11, 2001, when against all common sense he boarded a plane to Boston to keep a reunion at my family's country place in Maine. He wasn't going to let terrorists keep him from seeing the family he only visited once a decade. Or keep him from forcing us to watch 48 hours straight of Fox News. We let him, probably because we'd just found out he had Parkinson's, and for the first time ever, he seemed vulnerable.
So, I'm sure you can imagine the enthusiasm on my Michigan cousin's face last January when I announced to him, at his sister's wedding, that I'd finally gotten my driver's license. And that I was now the proud owner of 700 Toyotas, more or less.
Okay, co-owner. Montreal is the car sharing capitol of North America. Last I checked there were about the same number of members in my car co-op, Communauto, as there are in Open Salon, and it's growing just as fast. Because the bigger it is the better it works.
About a block away from my house, in a church parking lot that was empty four years ago, sit four Toyota Echoes, seven Yaris's and one four wheel drive Matrix. I work at home and live close to a metro station, so I don't drive everyday. But there is that half hour a week, during my son's piano lesson, where I prefer to sit in a car and listen to public radio than wander around in a nearby park, especially during winter. And there are those times when I'm transporting heavy things, or heading out to a country place. So when I need a car, here's what I do:
I get on my computer. I choose the time of my reservation: right now, a week from now, or a month from now. I choose the duration, from 30 minutes to 30 days. I choose a car from the most convenient parking lot, from around 200 spots spread throughout the city, and with a click of my mouse I book it.
When I get to the parking lot, I use my master key to unlock a lockbox which contains the keys to the individual cars. I choose the keys for my car. Then I use my member GPS key to unlock the ignition. And I'm off.
The hourly rate is currently between $2 and $2.55 an hour depending whether it's a weekday or weekend. There's a daily, or weekly rate for long distances. I pay about twenty five cents a kilometer (0.6 miles) for gas if I'm driving in the city. Half that, if I've rented it at the long distance rate. (the per/km gas rate fluctuates from time to time, for obvious reasons). There's a handy calculator on the website that will give me an idea how much my reservation and trip is going to cost, to make easier to decide whether I'd be better off with public transport or a cab.
Communauto pays insurance, repairs, registration, all that crap. My monthly bill is usually between $25 to $100. Unless I've taken a trip to Maine and then obviously it's more.
I love crossing the border in my Communauto car. They are always SO curious about the Communauto logo painted on the side. I never thought I would enjoy owning 700 cars as much as I do. But I really appreciate it in an emergency.
Like a month ago, there was some mix up with a substitute school bus driver. I found myself standing around in the cold with my son, three other kids and no other parents. It was obvious that even if the bus arrived, there was no way these kids would be making it to school on time. I flipped open my cell phone and speed dialed my friendly reservation agent. She has all my info computerized, including my favourite parking lot, which was a block away. Five minutes later we were all in a car. The kids were at school on time. Total cost, including gas: $6.
Every month I meet another neighbor who has joined. The other day, picking my son up from school so he could bring home a school project, I met another parent who noticed my Communauto car. He and his wife had just joined and sold their second car. Didn't want the trouble anymore. So, who knows, the day may come when it's the norm for families put their money into one good quality luxury car that will last (like a Lexus) and use economy car sharing for their second car needs.
It's become even more popular since Communauto teamed up with Montreal's transit commission to offer special deals to anyone who also suscribes to twelve months of bus and metro passes.
The private sector is joining in too. More and more downtown corporations are teaming up with Communauto as a way of making cars available to employees who might want to take public transit into work from the suburbs.
If Toyota is smart they'll use their experience with Communauto to spearhead this project in every major North American city. Why not? It's a win-win-win situation. It gives them great credibility with environmentalists and us creative types. It gets young drivers behind the wheel of a Toyota (since for obvious reasons this is a magnet for college students and very young professional). They drive them headache free for several years, since they never have to deal with repairs, or any of the burdens of car ownership. Life changes. They start a family. They get a raise, and they decide to buy a car. Like ducks, they will always return to that first burden free brand.
If the Saint of Paint is looking down from his country club in heaven, I wonder what he thinks of this idea. Who knows, he was always a strong believer in supply and demand economics. Maybe he's pissed that Ford didn't think of it first.
Though I suspect he's following a lot of other stories too these days.
(Hey Lexus. I know I'm a resident of Canada, which may disqualify me for this contest. But my family owns a house in Maine, which does make me a summer U.S. resident. More important to me than winning, however, is finding a way for this great idea to get some attention.)