Bremen’s fight for car sharing

“Keep on fighting, that’s the message – it’s worth it,” insists Michael Glotz-Richter, Senior Project Manager for Sustainable Mobility at the Municipality of Bremen. He would know.

The idea of car sharing was one of the first things to hit his desk when he started working for the city back in 1990, and in 2020 all the legislation was finally in place for car sharing across Germany.

Car sharing had started as a grassroots initiative among some local NGOs, and the city was watching with great interest. Eventually, in 1995, Bremen started to test a first car sharing pilot named ‘minus-100,’ a scheme that combined car sharing and public transport to eventually remove 100 vehicles from the streets.

“Already by then we could see the problem getting worse – cars were getting so much bigger that, where you could park 10 cars in the 90s, now you could only fit six,” Glotz-Richter says.

There was no basis for it in German legislation – so we just did it.
— Michael Glotz-Richter

In 2003, Bremen launched the first on-street car sharing stations in Germany – the mobil.punkt was born. “There was no basis for it in German legislation – so we just did it,” Glotz-Richter says, “though it was not easy.”

The municipality estimated that each of the cars at the two stations made available for sharing might take up to five private cars out of regular use. However, after a year of operation, interviews with users provided an astounding result: each one had replaced 9.5 cars. The ten cars the operator had made available for sharing had already taken almost 100 cars off the street by themselves.

Bremen brought this data to the German Federal Parliament, insisting on action to allow this to take off across Germany. In 2005, the Parliament passed the initiative, but it took until 2017 for the Ministry of Transport to deliver a corresponding law.

It was a further three years to put in place the additional regulations necessary to execute the law. “It shows it’s worth being patient,” Glotz-Richter emphasises, “Don’t lose your idea, don’t lose your objectives.”

Don’t lose your idea, don’t lose your objectives.
— Michael Glotz-Richter

Slaying the holy cow

While the legislation was sputtering forward at national level, car sharing in Bremen was zooming forward in fifth gear. However, there was one obstacle that, both locally and across Europe, presented a serious speed bump.

“Car ownership was dealt with as a holy cow – you could not touch it,” Glotz-Richter recalls. The city had to shift this paradigm, gently, through policy and communication.

The idea was to gradually restrict private cars, while increasing the availability of car sharing and other modes of public transport. For example, Bremen changed building regulations so developers could choose whether or not to provide parking in their new buildings.

Car ownership was dealt with as a holy cow – you could not touch it.
— Michael Glotz-Richter

Some developers, enthusiastic about the decreased costs, started straight away, while others were more sceptical. Over time, the assumption that owning a home and owning a parking space had to go hand in hand began to erode. “People started to realise that it’s not a God-given right that they have to park their cars in front of their house,” Glotz-Richter says.

Use it, don’t own it

Of equal importance to squeezing the supply of parking and increasing the availability of other options is strong communication. Bremen wants to convincingly present to its residents all of the advantages that car sharing can offer relative to car ownership.

For this, the city chose a surprising medley of ambassadors: an average guy named Udo, James Bond, and a dairy cow. These ambassadors found their way into every nook of the city – from cinema screens to bathroom stalls.

Would you buy a cow for a glass of milk?
— Car sharing advertisement

Of all of them, it may have been the cow that put the message most succinctly. Looking sceptically out from a green pasture, its poster asks you to rethink the logic of “buying a cow for a glass of milk.” Car ownership is a major undertaking, both in terms of cost and effort. You have to pay for the car, as well as parking, tax and insurance.

Cow in car sharing ad from Bremen
Cow in car sharing ad from Bremen

You have to clean and maintain it, changing the tyres and any faulty parts, taking time off work to bring it to the mechanic or the test centre. Does it really make sense to undertake all of the cost and effort of owning a car if you simply want to drive – any more so than buying a whole cow if you only want a glass of milk?

Meanwhile, James Bond’s message is this: You can be faster and more effective without a private car. With shared bicycle, you can beat the traffic and exploit restricted lanes; on foot you can get to your destination without searching for parking; and with shared cars, you can use a car whenever you need one.

Car sharing’s most enduring advocate in Bremen has been Udo, a cartoon character with a typical German name that also happens to stand for ‘Use it, Don’t Own it.’ “The main message,” Glotz-Richter says, “is that Udo prefers to chill.” Udo likes to have all the advantages of driving without any of the fuss of owning a car. While his friends are spending the morning preparing for winter with anti-freeze and fitting hardier tyres, Udo is chilling out.

When Udo has a date planned, he’s at leisure to choose among many different types of cars. “Why does he have so many?” Glotz-Richter asks, “Because he does car sharing.” Similarly, if he needs to collect a large package, he can switch out his regular model for a big van – car sharing puts the world at his feet.

Building an ecosystem

Engineering the shift towards car sharing is a big task, and the city is working closely with all the partners it can. Car sharing began in Bremen as an NGO initiative, ‘Stadt Auto,’ (‘City Car’ in English) but as success began to increase the financial risk, the organisation incorporated itself as a private company.

Then, a number of car sharing companies across Germany merged into Cambio to make inter-city travel smoother, and to raise their buying power. Today Cambio is one of the largest car sharing companies in Europe.

Public transport companies have also collaborated with car sharing schemes. “It makes a lot of sense for them,” Glotz-Richter says, “because the more people abandon their private vehicles for car sharing, the higher the chance they’ll use other modes of public transport too.”

In some of the first car sharing pilots, the phone desk for a local taxi company fielded car sharing calls, and in 1998 Bremen launched the first official joint ticket for all forms of public transport, including car sharing.

A lot of companies have too many cars, and they can cut costs by downsizing.
— Michael Glotz-Richter

The city also works with companies to show them how car sharing can augment their fleet management. “We say, ‘okay, instead of having 30 cars, you can have 20 cars, and at peak demand you can use car sharing.’” Glotz-Richter explains, “A lot of companies have too many cars, and they can cut costs by downsizing.”

Social status

Car sharing doesn’t just benefit the environment and companies, it’s also a practice with a strong social dimension. The reduced costs of building housing, especially in the city centre, when you take parking out of the picture, make affordable homes more easy to provide.

For people with a low income that would make it difficult for them to afford a car, car sharing, in combination with public transport, can provide a practical and affordable way to handle trips to the countryside, large shopping trips, or other moments in which a car is useful. “We have an Afghan refugee living with us in our house, and he’s using car sharing,” Glotz-Richter says.

Communication also has a social element. By eroding the idea of a car as a status symbol, one element of the social inequality that accompanies economic inequality can be removed.

A trip to China

Bremen’s successes with car sharing have not just inspired change throughout Germany and the EU, they have also gone global. In 2010, the UN selected Bremen’s car sharing as a showcase for the world expo in Shanghai. “We had a pavilion in Shanghai for six months – isn’t that cool? In my entire professional career, that was beyond my imagination,” Glotz-Richter recalls.

Bremen China world expo tshirt
Bremen China world expo t-shirt

Beyond being cool, the pavilion inspired car sharing models in Shanghai and Singapore. Glotz-Richter was invited back for workshops in both places, where he presented an analysis showing that Shanghai could reduce the number of cars on its streets by 200,000 with a sharing programme.

There was a lot more awareness and political support.
— Michael Glotz-Richter

Placement in the world expo and collaboration had further benefits for car sharing back at home. “It helped us also, it was in the media in Germany and there was a lot more awareness and political support as a result,” Glotz-Richter says. The work that Bremen inspired in China also demonstrated that the idea of car sharing could function well when scaled up massively. “That energises you,” Glotz-Richter confides, “it gets you thinking about what are your next objectives or targets could be.”

Don’t lose your vision

The experience gave Bremen the confidence to be ambitious, and when the city was designing its car sharing action plan, ambitions were not stifled. The city decided it would aim to quadruple its users from 5,000 in 2009 to 20,000 in 2020. “Some people said we were crazy!” Glotz-Richter recalls, “but event though Covid slowed us down a little, we achieved 20,000 users in 2021.”

Some people said we were crazy!
— Michael Glotz-Richter

Now car sharing is widely accepted in Bremen and across Europe, with many European cities still visiting Bremen to learn about its approach. The European Covenant of Mayors, an EU programme that Eurocities supports as secretariat, has even released a recent case study detailing technical approach of Bremen to guide and inspire other cities, which you can read here.

Glotz-Richter is delighted with the shift that he has seen. “Before, people were interested, but most remained sceptical. Now I know many people who are saying they will never buy a car again.” He likens the movement towards non-ownership of cars to the ever-growing popularity of cycling, “Cyclists were outsiders 30 years ago, but they’s considered cool now.”

Car sculpture in Bremen photo by Moritz Kindler via Unsplash

As acceptance grows, the need to abandon private vehicles is becoming ever more urgent. “It doesn’t matter what city you look at in Europe,” Glotz-Richter says, “We all share the problem of having too many cars on limited street space.”

Street space is in high demand for sustainable modes of transport, like bus lanes and bike parking, as well as greening and climate adaptation. That means that cars will have to cede some of the space that they have dominated for the last century.

Don’t lose your idea, your vision of the future.
— Michael Glotz-Richter

So, while Glotz-Richter confesses that there is much more to achieve in his city, he has plenty of reasons to celebrate Bremen’s success. When he tells the story of the three decades that it has taken Bremen to get where it is with car sharing today, he likes to draw the following moral from the tale: “Don’t lose your idea, your vision of the future. Even though if it takes 30 years.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer