On April 3rd 2017, the 82-years old Luud Schimmelpennink received the ‘Frans Banninck Cocq’ medal from the alderman of transportation in Amsterdam, Pieter Litjens. This medal is for people who have made a merit for the city over a period of 10 years or more. Luud is the inventor of the ‘Witkar’ and the ‘Witte fietsenplan’ back in 1967, and can be seen as the godfather of car- and bikesharing.
Not invented here?
The concept of the ‘Witte fietsenplan’, a shared bicycle plan didn’t come to life until 35 years after its invention. Today, the concept invented by Luud Schimmelpennink exists in 1,100 cities worldwide! Everywhere, but in Amsterdam surprisingly – why? Because of the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome? But wait…. it was invented here. Back in 1967, the municipality of Amsterdam rejected the idea. They said: "don’t you understand that the bicycle era is over now, and future is for the car?" Today we might find this remark odd as we see how far spread the idea of a shared bike system is and how it how it brings more attention and focus on bicycles in urban areas today.
Pioneer in car sharing
After the rejection of the bicycle plan, Luud came up with a plan for a collective car. In other words - a shared car! Worldwide, Witkar was the second carsharing system and drew attention from the international press already in 1968. The ‘Elektriese Munt-Oto’ was a three-wheeled cylindrical vehicle, which could go up to 30 km/h and had range of 15 km. It could be activated with a coin and was driven by innovative technology at the time. Whoever wanted to use the Witkar, had to become a member of the collective and pay one guilder per 5 km. The Witkar could be rented at one of the five stations throughout the city. The ride had to start and end at one of these stations, after which the battery of the Witkar could be recharged in 7 minutes.
Why did the Witkar cease service in 1986?
The collective dissolved due to the belief that their ambition seemed unachievable. There were only 25 stations and 125 Witkars. The initiators knew that the lack of success was mainly due to counter activity by the municipality of Amsterdam, such as creating difficulties with licenses. The municipality of Amsterdam found that Witkars did not have an influence on an improved air quality, and that the Witkars were neglected and not used often enough.
Now, let's fast forward 50 years
While watching this movie, you might recognize many similarities with today: fighting traffic- and parking problems in the city, worries about the environment and air pollution, the limitation of the range of an electric vehicle, the role of technology and the importance of innovation, ambitions for expansion and the community of users. This probably strikes us as, funny, but it is actually very sad. The promise and the potential of car sharing are (still) big, and Luud was a visionary ahead of his time. Since the time of Luud, traffic- and parking problems have only grown bigger. On the positive side, car sharing did grow as well, but it is still too small to truly make an impact and live up to its promises.
What is different today?
1. The problem is more urgent and more visible. Politicians were skeptical back then, but today, there is no policymaker who does not worry about increasing mobility and urbanization.
2. Technology has improved with the law of Moore, and therefore it is possible to book cars in real-time with our phones, so we can easily share cars with strangers.
3. There is a transition from ownership to access that is not only limited to mobility.
4. There is enough evidence and research about the effects of car- and ridesharing.
5. And of course, the range and speed of electric cars are much higher.
So this puts us in pole position to deliver on Luud's ambitions!
What is the expert’s opinion about the future?
In Pakhuis de Zwijger, Dutch and foreign experts were invited to talk about the future of shared mobility in honor of the 50 years of Witkar celebration. They talked about shared mobility, Mobility as a Service, and the collaborative and sharing economy in general.
The experts believe in the potential of car sharing. As part of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), as a solution to the approximately 40% public space occupied by private cars, the urban traffic jams, as part of a healthy mix in a city where walking and cycling play a leading role and in combination with self-driving transportation (shared taxi’s).
But, there are also critics voicing the worries that there is not enough research around the topic and that we do not have the right infrastructure to change the leading role of the car. They believe that we shouldn’t economize neighbors’ relationships and there is still a lot of work to do in the digital public space. The municipality seems to believe in market forces solving everything and that when the market is ready, users will choose for the best offer and easy combination of transport, rather than for private car ownership.
But is that enough? Maybe it is necessary to do more. Should we make car ownership more expensive while facilitating the combination of alternatives and shared mobility? Should we decrease space reserved for parking and return this space to the inhabitants of the city? Should we put effort into communicating the benefits of the alternatives? Should we involve employers? In any case, we should re-visit the 'right of owning a car', in which you almost always drive alone, while car sharing and other alternatives for the car should grow. Because if we don’t, we will look back at a movie of today in 50 years time, like we look at the Witkar movie today.