Public Transit

One-Way Carsharing’s Evolution in the Americas

One-way carsharing is a rapidly growing shared mobility option with hopes to reduce driving and vehicle ownership while providing affordable mobility. Where does one-way carsharing fit into the evolving shared mobility landscape?

Carsharing is an innovative shared mobility strategy that allows for short-term access to a shared vehicle fleet without the costly burden of vehicle ownership. A rapidly emerging model within carsharing is one-way carsharing (also known as point-to-point carsharing), which does not require users to return a vehicle to the same location from which it was accessed, thus allowing users to make one-way trips.

Technology has played a major role in the growth of one-way carsharing, including mobile apps, keyless vehicle access, in-vehicle and mobile global positioning system (GPS) receivers, and electric vehicles (EVs). These technologies allow for self-service vehicle access on a 24-hour basis for short-term trips. Yet, one-way carsharing presents unique challenges, such as vehicle rebalancing and parking management.

Early one-way carsharing systems

One-way carsharing began in Europe in the 1970s through experimental programs, but ceased operations a few years later due to technological limitations and a lack of governmental support. One-way services resurfaced in the late-1990s. A fleet of self-service electric cars launched in 1993 in La Rochelle, France, now the longest operating electric vehicle carsharing project, which exists today as a one-way carsharing program and continues to receive governmental support for its operations.

Pilot programs began in the U.S. in 1999, with the launch of CarLink, in the San Francisco Bay Area. It facilitated one-way trips between public transit stations and home or work. It ceased operations in 2003 after being transitioned to a for-profit carsharing company due to cost recovery concerns and limited scale. Both the University of California (UC), Riverside and UC Irvine piloted one-way carsharing around their respective campuses.

Since the 1970s, many carsharing business models and advanced technologies have been tested. Despite many successful projects that were well received, many ceased operations, mainly due to economic viability concerns, underuse, and insufficient technologies. However, with the recent success of roundtrip carsharing and other shared mobility modes, one-way carsharing is poised for notable growth.

Current state of one-way carsharing

Today, one-way carsharing reflects two main models: 1) free-floating carsharing and 2) station-based carsharing. Free-floating services enable shared vehicles to be picked up and dropped off anywhere within a designated operating area, while station-based carsharing requires users to return the vehicle to any designated station.

As of July 2014, there were approximately 17 one-way carsharing operators with programs in ten countries. Automakers are dominant players in the industry, including several European manufacturers who are prominent one-way carsharing operators. Moreover, one-way carsharing operations represented almost one-quarter of North American carsharing fleets, and over 24 percent of members had access to those vehicles.

Americas’ carsharing operator survey

A 2015 study surveyed roundtrip and one-way operators in the Americas to understand their perspectives on one-way carsharing and its future. Half of operators mentioned fundamental differences between the business models (for example, point-to-point vs. roundtrip), and 46 percent noted one-way’s more flexible use as key differences.

Almost 70 percent of roundtrip operators viewed one-way carsharing as a complement to roundtrip carsharing, while 19 percent viewed it as a competitor. Twelve percent perceived it as both a complement and competitor.

Operators believe that one-way carsharing will continue to grow over the next decade, but it will focus on metropolitan areas, similar to the proliferation of roundtrip carsharing. Moreover, respondents pointed to growing investment from auto manufacturers, which may further spur innovation and growth. The top innovations mentioned to spur future growth were: integration with public transit, smartcard usage, and incorporating EVs into the vehicle fleet.

One-way carsharing’s future

Over the past five years, one-way carsharing has played a growing role in cities. One-way carsharing may prove to be a suitable complement to roundtrip carsharing, public transit, and other shared mobility modes. One-way carsharing can continue to grow through supportive public policies, use of mobile technologies, and its unique cost structure and flexibility or convenience.

The impacts of one-way carsharing, however, are only beginning to be documented. Future research should evaluate one-way carsharing’s potential impact on vehicle miles/kilometers traveled (VMT/VKT), auto ownership, and emissions in urban areas, as well as its impact on cities, parking, and first- and last-mile connections to public transit.

Would you prefer a free-floating or a station-based carsharing service? Share your opinion in our comment section.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

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39 Comments

  • Alex Burrows
    22. July 2015 at 8:19

    Thanks Susan, this is a really interesting piece of research. I would imagine both have a role to play in different ways/environments. In urban areas, the free-floating model could very realistically join more people into the wider transport system and support the reduction in car ownership (which would actually support people’s mobility opportunities while mitigating against the ever-increasing cost of owning your own car). If one way carsharing can fill the gaps in the transport system then that would be a hugely positive step. If it also increases the overall usage of electric vehicles as well (which seems to be part of the agenda) then even better!

  • Julia F. Kost
    22. July 2015 at 9:22

    Hi Alex, thanks for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed Susan’s article! I was wondering: when you say free-floating models could work successfully in urban areas, what do you think about rural areas?

  • herrbremerhaven
    23. July 2015 at 21:12

    As I understand one of the expansion issues, cities need to approve open parking for carshare vehicles. Some cities see congestion and lack of parking as barriers, which can cause some concern on approving one-way carshare programs. While we are not quite there yet with the technology, I think self-driving carshare may solve the parking issue. Instead of needing designated spots, or using regular parking spots, end users could end their ride/drive and the vehicle could return itself to a parking node. We’ve discussed self-driving cars that could go to where an end user is located, so it seems like only one small step for a self-driving carshare vehicle to go find it’s own parking location.

  • Julia F. Kost
    24. July 2015 at 7:32

    I agree, herrbremerhaven. Self-driving carshare might be able to solve the parking problem especially in inner cities and on other hot spots for the future. As you say, we discussed this topic in the community earlier this year. There were some great ideas and thoughts there: https://community.move-forward.com/topics/6-car-sharing-cars-park-themselves/phase/13-car-sharing-cars-park-themselves

  • Pallavi Reddy
    24. July 2015 at 7:40

    Hi herrbremerhaven, as autonomous car sharing will eventually reduce the number of cars on road and requires fewer parking structures, I also think that self-driving car sharing may solve the parking congestion, thus helping to improve the infrastructure and better land use (the available space can either be used to build more green spaces, communities or dedicated bike paths etc.)

  • Susan Shaheen
    24. July 2015 at 17:06

    Automated vehicle (AV) technologies could help reduce parking demand, improve access, and reduce the fleet size needed to support one-way carsharing. As AV technologies are increasingly deployed, the distinctions among various carsharing models (e.g., peer-to-peer, one-way) and ridesourcing services (e.g., Uber, Lyft) are likely to blur—making differences less important among existing shared mobility business models.

  • Susan Shaheen
    24. July 2015 at 17:12

    Alex and Julia, thanks for your comments. At present, station-based models are particularly helpful in providing dedicated EV infrastructure. In contrast, free-floating models can provide more flexibility but do not guarantee users a parking space—similar to private vehicle use. We envision that as cities deploy more one-way vehicle services (many already have bikesharing systems) and automated vehicle technologies become available (this can enable more efficient vehicle operations, as autos could relocate themselves and drive to users), shared mobility services (e.g., carsharing and ridesourcing) could be deployed in less dense areas—such as suburbs and rural areas—filling gaps in the transportation network and enabling first-and-last mile connections to public transportation. Furthermore, shared mobility services may be an important mechanism for introducing and deploying EVs in transport networks, while reducing tailpipe emissions.

  • Alex Burrows
    27. July 2015 at 8:06

    Hi Julia. Free-floating could work very well in rural areas subject to certain parameters, which might make them more like car clubs I suspect, or another hybrid of car rental. In terms of pure free floating I suspect the demand is more disparate geographically which would make access on demand pretty difficult to achieve. But if you were say to have zones, and this might take it more towards lift-sharing, then there is the possibility of providing an improvement on mass transit options (and plugging in where taxi services don’t serve too well). An alternative might be a shared, copperative ownership model perhaps – neighbours clubbing together and the free floating model instead being focused on the financial model rather than the mobility provision model itself?

  • Julia F. Kost
    27. July 2015 at 11:03

    Those are some great ideas, thanks for elaborating, Alex! So, you would suggest a model more like a car club or cooperative ownership for provision of vehicles combined with the financial model of free floating carsharing?

  • afenog
    26. August 2015 at 7:04

    Having used both models, I very much prefer free-floating services!

  • Pallavi Reddy
    26. August 2015 at 8:39

    Thank you for sharing your opinion afenog. Why do you prefer free-floating services?

  • chris.illsley
    26. August 2015 at 9:28

    Nice article. The scale issue seems the big one. Have there been any studies on this? For instance how many cars are required to sustain an operating area of a certain size in a metropolitan area.
    That would be interesting to know.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    26. August 2015 at 9:52

    I am glad you liked the article and thank you for sharing your thoughts chris.illsley. As your question is topic-related, it lies in the author’s competence to answer them.

  • Kay Hartkopf
    26. August 2015 at 11:03

    Interesting thoughts Susan, I am a frequent user of free float car-sharing and in my opinion this is the most convenient way of car sharing. However, it is still in it’s infancy and coverage is not perfect as well as the burden of finding a parking spot still remains in very busy city districts. The impact on the environment and potential cannibalization of public transport need to be explored. I believe that it is a valuable piece in the puzzle of modern mobility schemes and should be supported by city officials. Whether it will be free float or station based will be determined by the constraints, requirements and preferences of the users and the places where it is going to be used.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    26. August 2015 at 11:45

    Hi Kay, thank you for sharing your views and elaborating on some of the issues. Why do think free-floating car sharing is more convenient?

  • Kay Hartkopf
    26. August 2015 at 12:12

    Hi Pallavi, there are two main reasons. First, you find cars all over the place without having to commute to a station (provided the total number of cars in the area is sufficient) and you can drive to your destination as close as if you were using your own car. Both saves time and additional travel beyond the shared car. Technology as of today makes using free floating shared cars very easy and reliable. So I do not see any need for a station. The only thing that helps to make it even more convenient is to provide easy to find reserved/priority parking for shared cars.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    26. August 2015 at 13:26

    Kay, these are some valid reasons and I also think that free-floating provides more flexibility for users. I agree that it would be more convenient if we had reserved or priority parking.

  • Susan Shaheen
    26. August 2015 at 21:34

    Dear Chris, thanks for your comment and question about scale of one-way operations. I highly recommend that you look at a paper co-authored by Rene Seign and Klaus Bogenberger, University of Munich titled: “Model-Based Design of Free-Floating Systems.” It was presented in January 2015 at the Transportation Research Board Meeting in Washington, DC. See: http://trid.trb.org/view.aspx?id=1336881

  • Susan Shaheen
    26. August 2015 at 21:37

    Dear Kay, thanks for your feedback. We agree at UC Berkeley that more research is needed on one-way carsharing impacts. It could be a strategy for addressing gaps in the public transportation network and a first-mile and last-mile solution. Nevertheless, more understanding is needed, particularly as these systems scale. We are working on an impacts study in North America on one-way carsharing across five cities. Please stay tuned for the results in the next six months.

  • Susan Shaheen
    26. August 2015 at 21:39

    Dear afenog, thank you for sharing your experience with both systems. What is the appeal for you of the free-floating model?

  • chris.illsley
    26. August 2015 at 23:02

    Oh thanks very much Susan! I was hoping there would be something. I’ll definitely take a look at that.

  • eMJay
    27. August 2015 at 0:47

    Yesterday was the last day for convenient carsharing as the company that services this city redrew the lines and left me 8 blocks short of living in the zone. I enjoyed the one way carsharing greatly, and it served as our second car. But profits spoke and we live in an area that is not providing enough revenue to the company. Carsharing is going to be driven by profit in the US and as long as there are economic gaps that appear to be at least 8 blocks wide, then there will always be people struggling to get from point A to point B.

    As the days grow shorter and the weather colder, I am faced with the choice of paying more and walking a distance twice as far as paying less and walking half the distance. Not sure if I will save any time with the first option which was part of carsharing’s appeal. Definitely will not be safer with the first option, though the second one is unpredictable as one can never know who is going to jump on the bus.

    In an area already underserved by public transportation, carsharing gave us hope and more mobility. It gave us a bit more free time. But we are not wealthy people, and do not need a car every single day. We don’t figure into the carsharing model, I suppose.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    27. August 2015 at 7:49

    Hi eMJay, thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and insights on carsharing. Do you know the reason for the declining revenue? What other modes of transport do you use on your day-to-day commute? What is the main factor that you take into consideration while choosing a certain mode of transport – safety, time, convenience or cost?

  • eMJay
    27. August 2015 at 13:39

    The revenue didn’t decline. Our area only made up 9% of the over all revenue. The new zoning favors the university campus and downtown areas, not neighborhoods where carsharing is likely to be used as a second car.

    We have a Smart car of our own and that is our main transportation. Carsharing allowed for my partner and I to go our separate ways and not have to be constantly juggling our schedules to fit each other’s transportation needs. All we had to do was check to see whose destination was in the carsharing zone or whose destination was likely to have a better parking situation available.

    Convenience is a big factor. The bus system does not run at all the times we need it. For example, my spouse gets off work on Sundays at 7 PM. That’s the same time the bus stops running on Sunday. The bus is also very slow. A 10 drive is a 40 minute bus ride. (Yes! We live in a major city!)

    Both my spouse and I have physical issues that make walking while carrying baggage very difficult. At times, I need to use a cane. Being able to drive directly to work or to home is a major convenience.It also ties to safety, as we don’t have to worry about walks being shoveled or being harassed. The bus is often the scene for fights among teens, drunks, and others. The bus can, and has been, stopped at any time by police. There have been shootings on the buses.

    While the bus is about half the cost of carsharing, the time spent getting from point A to point B is hugely increased on the bus, and safety is an issue. The bus stop is 4 blocks from our front door., and while that’s not a horrible walk, it is not one to take in bad weather. (There is actually a bus stop two houses down from our front door, but to take that route would add an extra hour or two to the trip as that bus runs so infrequently we lived here for 5 years before seeing a bus stop there. I think the bus runs ever 2 hours down this street.)

  • eMJay
    27. August 2015 at 13:39

    We’re willing to pay the extra cost of carsharing. It is within our budget to do so, where taxis are not. But in a working class neighborhood, not all residents have that ability. We knew of only 4 or 5 other people in our area who were users, and they were depending on carsharing as a second household car. Since carsharing companies are businesses, and not really concerned with how they could enhance lives of those underserved by public transportation, they will draw their lines around areas where the money is.

  • Susan Shaheen
    27. August 2015 at 21:38

    Dear eMjay, thank you for sharing your experience and perspective. Shared mobility could likely serve many more people in the future, particularly if public policies can start to address situations like yours. Some locations will logically be more profitable than others. We have seen this in bikesharing and carsharing services already. In the future, shared mobility strategies could help to bridge gaps in the public transportation network and as first-and-last mile solutions. I believe we are at the beginning of an evolution in our transportation system. We have much to work out along the way. In the interim, I hope you will be able to find an alternative mobility solution that works for your family.

  • eMJay
    28. August 2015 at 1:12

    Thanks, Susan. Until carsharing companies are willing to see a little less profit and truly engage in being part of all the communities that exist in a large city, we’ll continue to have a system in which some people are forced to use public transportation, and people who have a choice to use a flexible alternative.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    28. August 2015 at 7:27

    Thank you for taking the time to elaborate and for sharing your personal experience eMJay, really appreciate it.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    28. August 2015 at 7:27

    Thank you for taking the time to elaborate and for sharing your personal experience eMJay, really appreciate it.

  • mtreleaven
    30. August 2015 at 12:21

    Good article, I agree with comments about having ratios, city size and density info would be helpful. I use both models, but about 70% P2P car sharing in Toronto. I was also very excited to see the program in Stockholm, so having the opportunity to use the same keyless entry in another city is really compelling. Caveat: I didn’t get a chance to use it, personally this trip.

  • Susan Shaheen
    31. August 2015 at 16:54

    Thanks, mtreleaven. I agree that service reciprocity among cities is a great feature. Also, it is interesting to note that 70% of your carsharing use in Toronto is P2P (roundtrip).

  • mtreleaven
    31. August 2015 at 17:29

    Susan – apologies, by P2P, I meant one-way, not roundtrip. To get from “point-to-point”, not just roundtripping. Thanks for the great article.

  • DsUllman
    11. September 2015 at 22:10

    Free-floating or a station-based carsharing are complementary. I use free-floating for most of my needs but use station based carsharing for specific needs. In my neck of the woods, this means Car2Go for errands and meeting someone, zipcars when I need to something bigger to haul things.

  • Pallavi Reddy
    14. September 2015 at 8:48

    Welcome to Move Forward, DsUllman! And thank you for sharing your opinion with us.

  • Susan Shaheen
    14. September 2015 at 16:51

    Dear DsUllmann, It is interesting to hear about the complementary nature of one-way and roundtrip carsharing from your experience. We also see this type of dual-use in bikesharing systems that we have studied.

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