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Cars are a problem for city dwellers. It can be hard to find anywhere close to home to park them safely for long periods and public transport is often more convenient for journeys to the office or shops because of parking problems at the other end. But for trips to the country and friends out of town, or for moving heavy items, it's nice to have one around.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the three Petersen brothers living in Berlin decided that it was silly for each of them to have his own vehicle and began to share a common car. Friends thought the same way too and, after a few months, seven people were sharing two vehicles. In 1989, the brothers decided that they had better draw up some more definite rules about the way the costs were to be shared and set up a company, Stattauto, to handle what was becoming a booming business. (Statt is a wordplay on Stadt, the German for town, and Statt, which means instead of.) By 1995, their firm had 2,600 subscribers and had inspired or helped similar operations get established in over three hundred German, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss and Austrian cities and towns 47 . There is at least one Dorf (village) system too, DORF-mobil Bad Boll, which draws its members from a rural area in Baden Württemberg.

Stattauto works as follows: a new subscriber pays a 800DM deposit, which is refundable when he or she leaves, and a 200DM joining fee, which is not. In exchange they are given a key which will open the safe at all 26 'stations' around Berlin where the firm's cars are kept. Then, when they need a vehicle, they telephone a special number and say what type they want, at what time, for how long, and the station at which they wish to collect it. The number they ring is in fact a dedicated line to a big taxi company office, which has dispatchers working around the clock, every day of the year. A dispatcher takes the call, checks on Stattauto's computer that a vehicle is available, and, if it is, makes the booking on the spot.

"There are between three and five vehicles at each station," says Bertolt Klessmann, chairman of the association representing Stattauto's subscribers. "If all those at my nearest station are booked for the time I want, I ask the operator to check availability at the next nearest station. If you have a planned life and know three or four days before when you are going to need a vehicle, the system works well. But if you ring up at 10.30 on a Saturday morning wanting a car at eleven o'clock, one might be hard to find. Weekdays would be much easier." The taxi company handles the booking system under contract.

When subscribers arrive at a station they insert a personal Stattauto magnetic card into a reader which records their name and the time and allows them to open a door giving access to the safe. They open the safe with their key, take the keys to the car they have booked and drive away. "The recorder is in case the car is stolen or there is an accident. The company can find out whose card opened the safe and when," Klessmann explains.

The costs of using Stattauto vehicles are low. "There's an hourly charge of between 2 and 6DM depending on the type of vehicle. The most common charge would be three or four," Klessmann says. "There is also a charge for each kilometre of 27 or 28 pfennigs which covers everything, insurance, taxes, repairs, engine oil and fuel. The only other charge is a monthly fee of 10DM which covers the management costs. The rule is that subscribers should not return a vehicle with the fuel tank less than half full. They have to fill it up and the receipt for whatever they pay is set against the rental charges. The only exception is when subscribers are going on a trip of over 500km. In this case they pay 17 or 18 pfennigs a kilometre and buy their own fuel. This makes sense because their fuel consumption can vary quite a lot according to how they drive."

Subscribers return the cars to the station from which they borrowed them ("The company is trying to work out how it could handle one-way trips," Klessmann says) and are responsible for seeing that they are left in a clean and tidy condition although an 'auto-chef' - perhaps a student or a retired person - lives close to each station and gets a small allowance to make occasional checks on the cars. Subscribers pay monthly. They fill out a form at the station each time they return a vehicle recording the hours they have used it and the number of kilometres travelled. If the bill is not paid on time, the company's computer declines to open the door to the key safe when they present their magnetic card. Klessmann says that the only serious problem with the system is that some subscribers are late returning their vehicles and keep other subscribers waiting.

Experience has taught Stattauto how many cars it needs to have available at any time. "Most of the cars are hired by subscribers to use during their free time, unlike car hire firms which are busiest during working hours. We find that we need one car for every 23 subscribers in winter and one for eleven or twelve in the summer. There is a strong relationship between day length and car use" Klessmann says. As a result, the company is forced to buy new vehicles in the spring and sell the older ones in the autumn.

There is another strong relationship between the length of time someone has belonged to Stattauto and the amount they drive. "Their first year, they drive quite a lot," Klessmann says. "The second year, they will drive half the amount. And the third year, half that again." This means one of the Petersens' aims in starting the company is being fulfilled and cars are only being used when they are the best form of transport. "When someone owns a vehicle, the main costs are fixed and they use it for the smallest things like going two or three hundred metres to a shop. But if you are paying only according to how much you use it, you ask yourself each time you plan a journey if using some other form of transport might make more sense," Klessmann continues. But it also means commercial problems for Stattauto: "If we want to stay our present size we have to keep increasing the number of subscribers."

Most of Europe's car sharing groups belong to European Car Sharing (ECS) which allows their subscribers to use another club's fleet when they are away from home. "Car sharing is one component of an environmentally compatible traffic strategy," an ECS leaflet says. "By combining bus, rail, taxi and car sharing, users can choose the most convenient, inexpensive and environmentally acceptable means of transport. Every car sharing vehicle means four cars less on the road and an average saving of 28,000 car-kilometres per annum. The energy used for the mobility of a former car owner can be reduced by car sharing by almost 50%".

European Car Sharing, Max-Brauer Allee 218, D-22769 Hamburg, Germany. Tel. +49 40 28054124, fax +49 40 28054125, email

Information about DORF-mobil Bad Boll e.V. can be obtained from Jobst Kraus, Pappelweg 12, 7325 Bad Boll. Tel. +49 71 64 37 42, email

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