Car sharing boom
A Change of Role for the Automobile

New form of urban mobility
New form of urban mobility | Photo (detail): © mario_vender –

For decades the car was a status symbol and cullt object for the Germans. Now, however, especially in the big cities the way people get from one place to another is changing: Many people have put together their own personal mobility mix, ranging from cycling and using local transport to car sharing.

For more than a hundred years cars have been part of people’s everyday lives. They shaped their mobility and it would be really hard to imagine modern life without them. This is why in Germany the increasing popularity of car sharing has ushered in a complete turnaround – the role of the automobile is undergoing substantial changes, because people are using cars in new ways.

The triumphant advance of the automobile

In the past decades vehicle ownership in Germany has increased drastically – in 1970 there were 27 times as many cars as there were in 1950. Between 1970 and 2000 the number of cars on the roads still managed to triple itself. Today a car is one of the standard items every private household should have – 77 per cent of all households have one or several cars. From a statistical point of view, since the middle of the 1990s this mass motorisation has caused the back seats of cars to fall into disuse – they are just not needed anymore as the entire population of Germany only occupies the front seats when driving their cars. 

Figures like these show just how monumentally wrong the last German emperor, Wilhelm II, was when he prophesied at the end of the 20th century, “I believe in the horse. The car is just a passing fancy.” The unprecedented triumphal advance of the car in Germany is not just manifested by the immense figures of vehicle ownership, but also by the symbolic significance of the car as a cultural icon and a status symbol. It was not long before the car was seen as the epitome of social participation, self-determination and independence. During the years of West Germany’s economic miracle it became a symbol of the transition to a mass-consumption society and a yardstick for people’s affluence. At the same time in the realm of urban development automobility was given absolute priority, for decades the automotive city was the guiding principle of urban planning.   

Mass motorisation puts the brakes on the advantages

As an individualised society uses more and more individual types of transport, today four-fifths of all journeys are taken by car. In the larger conurbations in particular, the problems stemming from the ever increasing flow of traffic are getting worse. They lead directly to a conflict of interests – it is, of all things, this tremendous attraction of the car that is actually dampening people’s euphoria for cars and heralding in a turnaround. It is not just the noise and the air pollution that are making the lives of the people living in the cities difficult, it is also the fact that today’s cars are faster than ever and have more and more engine power, but they are forced to drive at a snail’s pace in the cities. In a lot of the big cities motorists move hardly any faster than cyclists. Stop-and-go traffic reduces the car as a means of transport to absurdity. The roads are getting fuller and fuller, the trend towards SUVs, those oversized sport utility vehicles, also adds to the problem. Looking for a parking spot can mean driving innumerable unnecessary kilometres which also does nothing to help the situation, as parking spots are getting scarcer and scarcer. 

New Symbols of independence

This is why in cities the car is no longer seen as the key to freedom and independence. In contrast, public transport is gaining more and more importance, and, above all, the bicycle. Among young people in particular the car has lost a lot of its charisma. They take their driving tests much later, drive much less and are no longer good customers for the automotive industry – today the people buying new cars are on average 53 years of age, older than they ever were before. The buying behaviour of young people, on the other hand, shows a clear shift towards new symbols of independence.

For example, according to the findings of a survey conducted by a brand consultancy called Prophet, 69 per cent of young Germans prefer to buy a used car than a new one, in order to have more money to spend on electronic devices, travel and leisure activities. For about half of the German respondents between the ages of 18 to 34 the latest Smart phone has more prestige than the latest model of a certain make of car. The emotional bond with the car is fading, it is considered to be just one of many other forms of transport. These days it is decisive to be able to fall back on the right mode of transport at the right moment. Nevertheless the survey’s findings also show that this declining significance of the car is not shared by all young people to the same extent – the more educated they are, the less important it is to have one’s own car.    

A blueprint for a new form of urban mobility

Within this new preference order and system of values car sharing has been able to demonstrate its benefits. At the beginning of 2015 there were more than a million users registered with the approx. 150 car sharing providers in Germany – this is 37.4 per cent more than in the previous year. The lion’s share of this growth is enjoyed by the big providers who have no centralised rental office and whose cars can be accessed wherever they are parked. the meantime car sharing is available in 490 cities and municipalities in Germany – in 2014 it was 110 fewer. It is not, however, just sharing a car that is enjoying such brisk popularity, there is also a trend towards transport networking.

Modern mobility is based on linking up different modes of transport to form individual mobility solutions. The shared car is in this case one of the important building blocks, because it eliminates the weaknesses of public transport and bridges the “last mile”. Transport solutions, like car sharing, are only workable due to the wide distribution of the Smart phone that offers all kinds of mobility options in pocket-sized format - via real-time information and booking applications car sharing, bus and train journeys, rental bikes or booking a lift in someone else’s car can be combined to form an overall solution. This means that young urbanites armed with Smart phones have become the forerunners of a new mobility and the car – once the apple of the German’s eye – is going through a seismic change in the role it plays – the individualised form of conveyance is becoming a networked public mobility service.