Expat Essentials: Car-sharing services let you ‘own’ a car without the car owning you

The first thing our friends and investors ask when they visit us in Eindhoven is, “If I relocated here, would I need a car?”

My first impulse is to say, “Probably, depending on where you choose to live.” Public transportation here in the Netherlands is generally excellent, but there are still last-mile issues in smaller cities such as Eindhoven and even in Amsterdam.

In crowded canal cities such as Amsterdam and Utrecht, owning a car would be my idea of hell. Parking issues alone, not to mention insurance and maintenance, would drive you crazy and drain your bank account.

If you are moving to a city such as Berlin, my answer would be a qualified, “Yes, you can have a car without owning a car.” If that sounds like Dialetics 101, it really isn’t it. It’s Car Sharing 101.

As we’ve planned trips to various cities, I’ve realized there are thousands and thousands of cars in cities across Europe, ready at your beck and call.

“How is this different than renting a car?” you ask.

First of all, after registration fees ranging from 7 euros to 30 euros, car-sharing companies such as DriveNow charge according to how long you use the vehicle, as opposed to rentals, which you’re stuck with for the day.

Second, the fees, which range from about 22 euro cents per minute to about 50 euro cents, include all expenses such as parking fees and fuel. Plus, cities love car-sharing, allowing them into restricted center-city zones and letting them park almost anywhere for free.

Third, this is app based, so if you get summoned to an important unscheduled meeting, let’s say, you use your app to find your car, get where you’re going, then just leave the car in the company’s operating area. Of course, the main complication is, you have to find the car in the first place, which often isn’t that easy. And if one is not close to you, by the time you get to it, you could have taken the train, bus or whatever.

The upside is, there are more and more car-sharing firms and “car clubs” such as car2go, DriveNow and Share’ngo from Scandinavia to Italy. Car-sharing companies really started about 2000, but only now are they catching on in Spain and Italy. In Italy alone, there are more than 5,000 shared cars available.

How practical is car-sharing? Well, Daimler AG, the automotive behemoth that owns Mercedes-Benz, appears to think this is the future, creating its own car-sharing operation – car2go – in  2008. Also, rental car companies such as Hertz and Avis have rushed to create their own car-sharing operations.

Here in Eindhoven, it’s not cool enough that you can snag a car for a few minutes. Here, Amber Mobility is working on a self-driving shared car that’s durable enough to let a steady stream of customers use it for hundreds of thousands of miles.

Okay, here’s the bottom line. If you need a car for a quick trip home from the airport, car-sharing is a great deal. Though a taxi might be faster.

If you grab a vehicle from, say, car2go, then end up using it for an entire day, it’s going to end up costing as much as, or more, than a rental, especially if you’re preferred customer at one of the global rent-a-car companies.

But, if you need a convenient way to get around a European city, this is a game-changer.

Here a list of the car-sharing companies and where they operate:

• BlaBlaCar

Number of cars: . As many as there are people willing to share their cars with strangers. BlaBlaCar is not a car-sharing service. It’s a car-pooling business model that’s essentially an online brokerage for peer-to-peer transportation, different than car2go or ride-hailing concepts such as Uber. But, if you need to go a long distance, this makes more sense than conventional car sharing.

Typical per-minute rate: Each trip has to be negotiated, and BlaBlaCar gets a fee.

Where the company operates: The France-based company operates in most of Europe including Eastern European countries such as Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary.

• car2go

Number of cars: car2go is the industry big daddy, with 1.4 million subscribers and about 14,000 cars including larger Mercedes-Benz models. car2go is a subsidiary of Daimler AG, based in Stuttgart.

Typical per-minute rate: 50 euro cents

Where the company operates: car2go started out in Ulm, Germany. It’s entered and left several markets including Ulm, London, Stockholm and Copenhagen. But it still operates in various German, Italian and Dutch markets, and all over the U.S. including smaller markets such as Columbus, Ohio.

Fun fact: About 50 percent of car2go customers don’t own a car.

• DriveNow

Number of cars: About 5,000. Models include BMW i3s and Mini-Coopers

Typical per-minute rate: 30 euro cents

Where the company operates: DriveNow operates in five Germany cities: Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Hamburg and Düsseldorf. It also operates in London, Vienna, Brussels, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Milan.

• Emov

Number of cars: Emov, a new electric-car service has 500 battery-powered Citroen C-Zero cars in Madrid, and claims 100,000 subscribers.

Typical per-minute rate: 24 euro cents per minute

Where the company operates: Only in Madrid

• Share’ngo

Number of cars: Share’ngo launched with about 60 electric cars in 2016, with a goal of reaching 500 cars this year.

Typical per-minute rate: 28 euro cents, but frequent Share’ngo users can get rates as low as 20 euro cents per minute, according to their website.

Where the company operates: Right now, Share’ngo is an Italian thang, operating only in Florence, Milan, Rome and Modena.

• Zipcar

Number of cars: Zipcar is part of Avis and has A LOT of cars … at least 10,000. But with the company based in Boston, the majority are in the U.S.

Typical rate: Zipcar differs from competitors in that it charges by the hour or day, and prices vary according to where you rent. Memberships start at 7 euros.

Where the company operates: Zipcar is based in the U.S., but has operations across Europe including in Paris, Barcelona, Frankfurt, London and all over the UK.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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