Pandemic, high prices drive up interest in Halifax car-sharing service

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Tim Callanan, manager of the Atlantic branch of the car-sharing company Communauto, says the service has seen more demand this summer than ever before. (Frances Willick/CBC - image credit)
Tim Callanan, manager of the Atlantic branch of the car-sharing company Communauto, says the service has seen more demand this summer than ever before. (Frances Willick/CBC - image credit)

Demand for shared cars in Halifax has reached an all-time high this summer, thanks in part to the pandemic and rising prices.

Communauto, a car-sharing service that operates on the Halifax peninsula and in downtown Dartmouth, N.S., has seen a dramatic increase in membership and bookings.

"The demand right now in Halifax is unprecedented for sure," said Tim Callanan, manager of the Atlantic branch of Communauto. "Summer is always by far our most popular and busiest season. This year is definitely a more extreme version of that trend."

Members of the service use an app to book cars owned by the company, and pick up the vehicles themselves on the street or at designated stations. Users can drive the cars for trips of a few minutes, a few weeks, or anything in between.

Vanessa Burns joined Communauto in March after previously being a member of the company's predecessor, CarShareHFX. She calls the struggle to get a Communauto vehicle this summer "car roulette."

"You can go on the app and you see that there's literally not one vehicle available in the city, which can be a little bit frustrating," she said. "I've had to reserve cars by, you know, refreshing, refreshing, refreshing the screen, hoping that somebody cancels a booking."

Submitted by Vanessa Burns
Submitted by Vanessa Burns

There have been times Burns has not been able to get a car, and has chosen to take transit instead or even cancel a trip.

She said she has friends who are members of the service who are considering buying a vehicle because they often can't book cars when they need them.

"The last thing you want to hear is people saying, I want to go out and buy a vehicle, because the whole point of car-sharing is to take cars off the road."

Burns said she hopes the scarcity this summer will just be "a little blip in growth."

John Arnold has been using car-sharing services in Halifax since 2010, and says this summer is the first time he's often experienced not being able to get a car within a reasonable distance.

"If I wanted to get a car right now to go to the mall, say, at 3 o'clock or something, there might be a car in Dartmouth that I could get, but it's unlikely that I would get a car right now. But … before this summer, that would have been not something I would worry about."

Although sometimes the lack of availability can be an inconvenience, Arnold said he's glad more people are sharing cars because he views it as a more sustainable option than ownership.

Submitted by Vanessa Burns
Submitted by Vanessa Burns

Callanan wouldn't say exactly how much membership and usage in Halifax have grown this year, but across the company, he said both measures have increased by more than 30 per cent each year over the past few years. Communauto also operates in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

There are a number of factors driving uptake of car-sharing apps, and the pandemic has played a significant role, Callanan said.

"If you are working from home or you have more flexibility in your work, maybe you don't need that car sitting in your driveway or you don't need the second car sitting in your driveway," he said.

Reluctance to travel abroad during the pandemic also may have prompted more people to explore their own region, using a shared car to do so, Callanan said.

Paul Poirier/CBC
Paul Poirier/CBC

Booking cars from traditional rental companies has become more difficult, as many sold off parts of their fleets due to low demand in the early days of the pandemic.

Those same companies are now having a hard time replacing the vehicles they got rid of, as car manufacturers slowed production during the pandemic, and an ongoing microchip shortage is hampering the production of new vehicles.

So, people who are in the market for a new car, or at least a car rental, may turn to a shared car to bridge the gap in supply, Callanan said.

Communauto is not immune to those supply chain issues. The company is waiting on the delivery of a remaining 10 vehicles it ordered for its Halifax fleet last fall. Once they arrive, it will bring the total number of vehicles in Halifax to 160, up from just 40 five years ago.

Financial pressures caused by gas prices and inflation may also have drawn some new clients, Callanan said.

"A lot of people are looking at their financial situations and looking at how they could save money, what those monthly expenses are. And a car costs you a lot of money when you've got it, whether you've got it sitting in your driveway or if you drive it every day. There's the maintenance, the repairs, the insurance, the car payments. We take care of all of that for people."

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