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Who’s sharing and who’s not: A look at the inequitable distribution of U.S. car sharing hubs

By Adam Blair
April 30, 2010

While cities across America continue to expend their share of federal stimulus funds, a recent lawsuit in San Francisco serves as an important reminder to institutions spending public dollars. Following a campaign by several Bay Area advocacy groups, the U.S. Federal Transit Administration withdrew $70 million in federal stimulus dollars from Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) because it failed to conduct an equity analysis for a new project. The campaign began after BART proposed a subway line that would bypass several low-income and minority neighborhoods—failing to enhance job accessibility for a population that may need meaningful employment the most.

Federally funded transportation initiatives are held to high standards and required to perform equity analyses, but what about forms of quasi-public transportation such as car sharing? Like a new bus stop or subway station, the promise of a car sharing hub in one’s neighborhood can be quite liberating—especially for those who are not fortunate enough or choose not to own an automobile.

Car sharing allows members to reserve a well-maintained, fuel-efficient vehicle for only the time they need it, usually paying an hourly rate and a mileage fee. Historically marketed as a solution to reduce vehicle miles traveled and cut down on greenhouse gases, car sharing can also increase members’ access to things like food, doctor appointments, and job interviews. A recent study by Frost & Sullivan found that North American car sharing membership rose 117% from 2007 to 2009, and predicts that 4.4 million members will share over 70,000 vehicles by 2016.

Given the increasing popularity of car sharing, it is important for planners and policymakers to recognize the fact that access to adequate transportation has the potential to increase quality of life in many of the auto-centric metropolitan regions that characterize the American landscape . After all, getting from Point A to Point B is often essential to make a living, purchase healthy food, and perform other daily tasks. For households without access to a car, some of these trips can be very cumbersome; car sharing provides a solution without the burdens of ownership.

Car sharing performs best in dense urban environments that have low rates of vehicle ownership. However, a GIS-based analysis of hub locations belonging to a seasoned U.S. car sharing operator like Zipcar shows an anomaly with respect to several demographic factors. Let’s take Washington, D.C., a place where over one hundred Zipcars call home.

Using GIS, one will quickly notice several low-income, minority neighborhoods where Zipcars are absent, despite high density and low vehicle ownership rates that would typically support a network of car sharing hubs. In neighborhoods like Marshall Heights to the east, and Washington Highlands and Garfield Heights to the south, Zipcar hubs occur much less frequently than in more affluent neighborhoods like Georgetown and the Hill.

We see a similar trend in West Philadelphia, where Zipcars are seldom found in low-income but dense neighborhoods like Cobbs Creek and Parkside, but are plentiful in University City and Center City.

These geographical gaps in car sharing service may be explained by a whole host of reasons, including financial barriers, the methods by which car sharing is marketed, risk-aversion on the part of the car sharing provider, or simple unawareness of the car sharing concept within the community. As car sharing membership grows, however, it is crucial to identify and understand all of the barriers to car sharing in low-income communities because if we don’t do this, how will we ever overcome them?


Brenman, M., & Marcantonio, R. A. (2010, February 22). Transportation victory for social equity. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2000). American fact finder. Retrieved from

Zhao, D. (2010, January 28). Carsharing: a sustainable and innovative personal transport solution with great potential and huge opportunities. Retrieved from

Zipcar. (n.d.). Find cars. Retrieved from