Last Monday I felt exceptionally green. I grabbed a Bicing community cycle-share bike in front of my apartment in downtown Barcelona. I rode briskly to the Metro, where I left the bike and caught the train to the Alfons X stop. From there I walked to the Avancar Carsharing offices for my interview with Josep Sala, the company’s director. After talking to Sala about sustainable transportation, we cruised for a bit in a cherry-red Honda Insight. I left my meeting with Sala inspired by all the ecological options I have at my fingertips in Barcelona where I’ve lived for the past six plus years.
In many ways, I am the quintessential target client for Avancar Carsharing. I am between 28 and 40 years old. I live in the center of Barcelona. I need a car only a couple times a month, and most importantly, I don’t have a car of my own. Yet I’d not heard of Avancar until about a month ago when I was handed a flyer on the street. My first thought was, This is awesome, and then, seeing that Avancar had been around since 2005: How did I miss this?
It seems that I am not the only one who has just heard about Spanish car-sharing. Avancar has a mere 6,000 registered users in Barcelona, which is not a huge number considering the city’s population is over a million and a half (over 3 million in the greater Barcelona area). Plus, Barcelona has all the ingredients for an excellent car-sharing location. If you’ve ever tried to squeeze your Seat into an underground parking space sized for a Smartcar, then you know a hint of the daily toil of a car-owner in the city. That puny parking spot will set you back €150.00 a month downtown, and parking on the street takes luck and skill and risks broken windows from local thieves and banged-up bumpers and doors thanks to careless drivers.
Aggressive traffic, a sustainable-savvy public, an already successful community bike-share program (Bicing.com), and high costs for car owners are yet more reasons to share cars instead of own in the Catalan capital. And let’s not forget that Barcelona, like the rest of Spain, is still in a serious economic recession. This should mean more residents giving up their cars and the expense of maintaining them, and opting for car-sharing. So what’s the deal? Why isn’t everyone I know using Avancar?
Though Avancar has been around for seven years, their advertising budget has been limited. Until now. Zipcar, an international leader in car-sharing, has become the majority owner of Avancar. Teaming up with Zipcar means big improvements in the Avancar system plus the chance to get the word out to residents. Avancar’s Sala predicts that user numbers will soon be over 15,000 in the metropolis. What’s more, all Zipcar users will be able to take advantage of their membership in Barcelona as of September 2012. If you’re currently a Zipcar user in say, Austin, Texas, bring your card with you on your next visit to Barcelona to conveniently use one of Avancar’s 114 automobiles.
I love this concept of cross-continental car-sharing. I also see the benefits a student or short-term resident in Barcelona could reap from an Avancar membership. US citizens do not have a driver’s license agreement with Spain. This is to say that you must get a Spanish driver’s license to drive in Spain if you’re to live in Spain long-term (such is my case). The result is driving school, tests, parallel parking, the whole nine yards (doesn’t matter if you’ve been driving since 1965). However, Americans can drive in Spain on a tourist visa for up to six months. So, if you’re a college student spending six months studying abroad, or plan to take a month-long vacation in Barcelona, Avancar could be a great resource for short day-trips outside the city. It’s worth mentioning that the shared hybrids are automatic, so if you don’t drive stick, which is more common in Europe, no problemo.
If you’re a local in Barcelona then the main advantages are reducing your carbon footprint, saving big bucks (if you give up your personal car), and generally feeling good about yourself. “An average estimate on how much can be saved per year is about €5,000,” says Sala. This number is based on a user who drives less than 10,000 kilometers a year and takes into account car payments, parking space costs, car maintenance, car cleaning, insurance, gas prices, taxes, and trips to the Spanish version of DMV. It might be worth giving up the car for Avanacar just to avoid trips to the DMV! What’s more, with car-sharing you know how much you’re spending each time you use a car, which is a figure harder to come up with if you have a private vehicle. Simply knowing that a trip will cost you €45 or whatever the rate is, causes most to reflect upon if the trip is worth the money, and perhaps even motivate you to try carpooling.
So how does it work? If you’ve used car-sharing before then Avancar is nothing new. You sign up online, over the phone, or in person. You need a valid driver’s license that is over a year old and a Spanish bank account. As of September 2012, users will not need a Spanish bank account, but only a credit or debit card number (from any country). You also need an address to which Avancar can send your membership card. Once you have the card you can go online and reserve a car at your nearest parking garage. There are currently 35 parking garages strategically placed throughout Barcelona’s city center to choose from. Once you’ve found your closest garage, you pick a car. Currently, Avancar has 14 new Honda Jazz Hybrid, plus Honda Insight Hybrids, and standard Seats, Renaults, and Opels. Most of their cars are compact, but they do have a few nine-seat vans for groups and families. So far, they are not offering moving vans (which is a shame).
Depending on which car you choose, you’ll pay slightly more or less. Apart from the yearly membership fee of €40.00, each car has a price per hour/day and kilometer. For example, the Honda Insight goes for €5.00 an hour, €60.00 per day and €00.31 per kilometer after the first 20 kilometers. The least expensive “utility” cars go for €3.50 an hour, €45 per day and €00.27 a kilometer. Clearly, at these rates Avancar may not be the budget option for a long trip, but is a superb choice for a day-trip to the beach, a visit to Aunt Juana’s house in the countryside, or shopping trip outside downtown. According to Sala, most users have the car for about seven hours, which would add up to about €35- €40 a day. Plus, with Avancar the fuel is included, as is insurance and roadside assistance. Once a month Avancar bills you for your use.
By then end of my interview with Sala I’m wondering what the catch is. I’m also wondering why Avancar would be preferable to just renting a car from Sixt or wherever. Math was never my forte, but here’s what I figure: to use any rental car, you’re going to go somewhere that the train does not because taking the train is greener. For example, you wouldn’t take Avancar to Sitges which is an hour by Renfe from Barcelona, but you might take it to the Cadaqués on the Costa Brava, only accessible by bus. A trip to Cadaqués is about 172 kms, minus those 20 free miles you get with each use, so 152. Let’s say you go for the day, so seven hours, which is €35.00. Then €00.31 the extra kilometer. That’s, drumroll...€94.00 in kms and about €129.24 total.
When I searched for the same deal for a Saturday with Sixt (http://www.sixt.es/), the price was €84.00. Of course this rate does not include gas, which could easily be another €50.00. Therefore, on a trip to Cadaqués Avancar would still be the best deal because gas is included, but just slightly. Indeed, Sala admits that Avancar’s lure is not its price, “Carsharing isn’t so competitive in price, but it is competitive when it comes to convenience.” When compared to traditional car rental, Avancar is a lot easier. There’s no waiting in line, no filling out forms, no reading the fine print or trying to find a gas station to fill up the car last minute. It’s easy to book a car from your smartphone and go.
Josep Maria Camps Collet also appreciates the ease of using Avancar. “If I go on a long trip, I rent a car. For a day-trip, I use Avancar,” explains Josep, who became a member in 2011. “My wife and I said we’d give it a try as soon as our old beater car died, and it did in December,” says Josep. A family-man living in Barcelona’s old town, Josep no longer has to pay €140.00 a month for parking, and uses Avancar about twice a month to visit family in Sitges or Cardedeu. While both of these villages are reachable by Renfe, Josep finds the journey easier by Avancar with an aging mother-in-law and children. While overall Josep is positive about Avancar, he admits that at times cars are booked up or not available in his nearest garage, which is a definite drawback.
Another handicap is that users must return the car to the same garage it’s picked up at, which is inconvenient in some situations. And what if you get in a fender-bender? Or lose your card or key? Then Avancar will send someone to help you. If you get in a serious smash up then it’s €150.00 a day that you will have to pay for each day that the car is out of commission in the shop - so drive with caution (there is extra insurance available to dodgee this fee). I also noted that in the US-based Zipcar deal, hourly rates are a little higher ($8/hour) but many more kilometers are included in the rate (180 free miles). When we consider that Avancar’s 20 free kilometer is only about 13 miles total in a day, it suddenly doesn’t look like such a stellar deal.
Even with these negative points, I’m still jazzed about Avancar and hope it continues to catch on, as does Josep: “I hope it takes off because if it goes out of business I’d have to buy a car!” Though Avancar is the only car-share program in Barcelona, it’s one of many car-share programs throughout Europe, where car-sharing originated. In Spain there’s cars-haring in Bilbao, Valencia, Zaragoza, and in Madrid where Respiro Carsharing is becoming increasingly popular. Apart from paid car-sharing, there is also P2P car-sharing in Spain with BlaBlaCar.es, the Couch Surfing of car-sharing. Part hitchhiking and part carpooling, for the adventurous individual BlaBla could be a fun way to travel through the country. Another option is SocialCar which is simply a P2P car rental service.
Whether car-sharing becomes successful in Spain remains to be seen. “For many, their car is their status symbol,” commented Sala, and I think his observation is accurate not just in Spain but in the US as well. A cultural shift from the individual to the community has to happen for car-sharing to take off in mainstream Spain and America, and certainly we’ll have to adjust our concept of ownership and worth. While car-sharing may not be the answer for everyone, it is a worthwhile alternative for many of in Barcelona yearning for a day-trip to Montserrat, or simply trying to cut costs in a tough economy.