We can’t believe it’s been 10 years! So much has changed since our first three cars came into service. Today we are chatting with some of our original board members and volunteers. Back in the days before key fobs, when a small group of volunteers had a vision for a car-free lifestyle.
The humble beginnings of Peg City Car Co-op
It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since we placed our first three cars in the Osborne Village area. It wasn’t always roof racks and cargo vans here at Peg City Car Co-op. Back then, pretty much everything was tracked on paper, keys were stored in lockboxes, and you couldn’t take cars overnight or out of town!
Fast forward to today, we have over 2,000 members and 60 vehicles in 11 neighbourhoods. Members can book online 24/7 and access our entire fleet with a single key fob. Our automated system logs each trip through our online software, so members can enjoy the benefits of driving a vehicle, without the hassle of owning one.
We have come a long way in 10 short years. And yet, while carsharing as an industry is over 25 years old in Canada, in Winnipeg the idea of sharing-not-owning a vehicle is still borderline outrageous!
There will always be sceptics, but today we are chatting with the visionaries who brought carsharing to this great city. Our roots were formed by an incredibly dedicated group who would go on to form the initial steering committee and also the first Board of Directors of Winnipeg’s one-and-only business to customer carsharing company.
Dreaming of car-free living
For many, living completely carfree in Winnipeg is simply not possible. Carsharing can be a great way to minimize one’s carbon footprint, save on transportation expenses, and cut out the daily hassle of maintaining a private vehicle. When did you first learn about carsharing, and what drew you to carsharing as a transportation option?
Sometimes a few great minds thinking alike and serendipity striking can make the impossible, possible!
Our first Managing Director and founding board member, Beth McKechnie put it like this: “It was one of those lovely coincidences that around the time I spoke with the ED at Vancouver’s car co-op, I got an email from Liz Dykman, who was working at the Manitoba Eco-Network (MEN) at that time. A fellow named Bruce Berry had moved to Winnipeg from Kitchener-Waterloo, where he was a member of a local car co-op. He wondered if others in Winnipeg might be interested in starting a carshare here. The four of us, including Susan Lindsay, also of MEN, met for the first time in 2007 to set about doing that.”
It amazes us how often people don’t believe that a good idea can work in Winnipeg. How many times have we heard “that’s great in x, but no way that’s gonna work here”. Lucky for us that bad attitude doesn’t stop people from pushing for better things in Winnipeg!
“I kept hearing stories of people who live car-free in other cities but felt forced to buy a car when they moved to Winnipeg. Carsharing seemed like a possible solution for Winnipeggers who wanted occasional access to a car.”
Shoni Madden, who was a founding board member and president of Peg City Car Co-op, explains how she came to think that carsharing could work in Winnipeg: “I had recently graduated from Environmental Studies, found an apartment in the Village, and was experiencing car-free living for the first time. I had started riding my bike to work after a gentle nudge from a friend and office-mate (that later became my husband/board member). One day, I was walking over the Donald Street bridge when a poster caught my eye. It said something like ‘Do you want to see carsharing in Winnipeg?’. It was like all the pieces came together for me at that moment.” Nothing like some good old guerilla postering to spread around an idea! Psst… There’s more than one marriage story in our carsharing history. 😉
While we are strongly committed to environmental and urbanist principles, we at Peg City Car Co-op, continue to understand the value of economic pragmatism, which is perfectly encapsulated by Melissa: “It just seemed like such an obvious solution. Cars are expensive to own and operate, but when shared that burden is distributed across more people.”
Making the case for carsharing
Carsharing is a staple in the transportation networks of many Canadian cities and population-dense urban centres across the globe. As a city known more for prairie skies than population-dense urban bustle, what convinced you that carsharing could work in Winnipeg?
“Carsharing had worked in so many other places. It is often the case that Winnipeg is overlooked for innovation. I’m really happy that the founding board members and co-op members took the plunged and started something crazy.”
It still feels crazy sometimes that carsharing works in Winnipeg, but here we are!
While the founding board and staff believed in the vision or carsharing it wasn’t easy to grasp how far we could go: “I was aware of successes in other larger cities. What wasn’t at all clear was how far you could push that outwards from a handful of Winnipeg’s most central neighbourhoods. We wondered whether a carshare could be scaled up enough with such geographic limitations to be self-supporting. This, apparently, was one of the main reasons Winnipeg was looked over by other carshare companies to that point, but it also served to motivate the board.”
It’s amazing to think that we now service 11 neighbourhoods and have 60 cars!
“In one of the first meetings, we all shared how we would use a vehicle occasionally if we had access to one. The range of responses was amazing – airport pickups, grocery trips, visiting parents in the burbs. It just was clear that if we could all benefit, others could too.”
While the people who started carsharing in Winnipeg were visionaries, they were also grounded in pragmatism. We had to get some sense that carsharing would work before it got off the ground. That’s why months went into researching if carsharing would work: “When the feasibility study findings determined that carsharing was possible in Winnipeg, we set the wheels in motion (pun intended, sorry).”
Seeing as you started this whole thing, this may be a silly question. So, why did you decide to join the Co-op?
“Jealousy?? haha. Actually, it’s not even a joke. It was this “cool” thing that other more-urban centres had, and I wanted to make us more like them.”
How said jealousy is always a bad thing?
While Peg City couldn’t run on volunteerism for ever, it’s amazing how much got done because a bunch of dedicated folks wanted to see better transportation options in Winnipeg: “I wanted to use the service just as much as I wanted to see it exist in the city. I didn’t know what I was getting into as there were weeks/months where we met and worked probably 30+ hours a month volunteering!”
“I joined the carshare as staff from a role at MPI with long-term prospects, but it was boring, and I was in my twenties!”
“In winter 2009, I was on a work trip with other steering committee members, and they told me about the carshare. I didn’t own a car at the time and didn’t have an interest in buying one, so I wanted to get involved to help make sure this would actually happen. “
Starting up a new business – never mind introducing an entire industry to a new market – is risky and full of uncertainty. What were some of the most surprising lessons?
Ultimately the shared economy is all about trust. If it wasn’t for a few people trusting a crazy idea, there’d be no carsharing in Winnipeg today: “The biggest surprise was having 28 people hand over $500 to a group of strangers with a crazy idea so we could get the funding we needed to launch.”
It goes to show Winnipeggers are more innovates than we give ourselves credit for!
While a lot of market research went into understanding the feasibility of carsharing in Winnipeg, sometimes research and reality don’t match up: “The target demographic is not necessarily what we thought. Also, the reasons for using a vehicle are as varied as the people that use them.”
It’s also hard to know your demographic with a couple of cars and a few members.
As with any form of transportation, if you provide people with a convenient option, many will choose an alternative to the private automobile. Shoni summarises this idea perfectly: “As we grew beyond the initial three cars, we saw that the more cars we put in an area, the more people used them. It became about creating and growing a reliable network, so people had another option within a 5-10 minute walk if the vehicle they wanted was in use. “
“Carsharing was a novel concept for Winnipeg when the co-op was launched. Much of the early effort of board members, volunteers, and our minuscule marketing budget was spent introducing the idea to Winnipeggers and establishing a presence with very few vehicles.” Not so novel anymore!
“I learned so much about vehicle batteries in those early years – I can’t even begin to tell you.”
One of the hardest parts of carsharing in Winnipeg is the cold. This was true with three cars and is even more true with 60!
It’s taken a lot of patience and dedication to grow carsharing in Winnipeg. Ultimately buying and selling a car is not something most people do by impulse. Beth explains growing carsharing took time and patience: “One thing that took us by surprise was that many people expressed serious interest in joining the car co-op, but it took time for that to happen. Some were waiting for their current vehicle to die, others didn’t live close enough to the cars to take advantage of them.”
Patience really is a virtue!
Carsharing is without a doubt a risky business. Ultimately, we are taking on all the fixed costs of ownership, while making the cost variable to the member. If you don’t have enough users it’s almost impossible to generate enough revenue to make carsharing successful, and you need enough cars to make carsharing a viable alternative. Michael Moreau, one of our former treasurers framed the problem like so: “The big surprise for me was that we had the wrong size of organization needed to be sustainable. Low prices (given the Winnipeg market) made for very tight margins. As such, expansion was the only way forward. New neighbourhoods, new members, new cars, new vehicle types, etc., needed to be financed and pushed – More Fobs in Hands and More Cars on the Road was the rule from 2013 to 2016.” And it’s still the rule today! We understand more than ever that carsharing is all about scale.
Survey says: more company BBQs
The initial board and steering committee would meet weekly, putting in 20-30 hours of volunteer time each month, just to get things rolling. Looking back at all your hard work, what is one of your fondest carsharing memories?
While it took a lot of hard work and dedication to get Peg City Car Co-op off the ground, there was also time to unwind and have fun!
“Just a ton of great memories with the staff and Board. BBQs at George and Shirley’s, day-long strategic planning sessions, Christmas parties, long days of minding the booth at various festivals, meetings to design and implement our brand, we put in a lot of work, but it never really felt like work!”
“I remember cycling over to the car at 9 am in June of 2011 (forget the exact date, maybe the 9th?) to catch a pic of Ken Bond, as the first-ever member to use a carshare vehicle in Winnipeg.”
Showing real people using our cars is still a big part of our brand philosophy!
“George and Shirley’s annual BBQ – reminding us all to take a break and celebrate together. If you let them, they would host this event in perpetuity.”
“When the Board first realized that demand for our vehicles was beginning to outpace our ability to supply them. BBQ potlucks at George and Shirley’s house. ”
It looks like the emerging theme is… food!
“Meeting Melissa, who was on the Board. She’s now my partner and the mother of our two kids!”
We told you there’d be more romance…
“The second memory goes back to our first office space at 478 River Ave. We had a board meeting there before we had any furniture. We sat on the floor and cracked open some bubbly to celebrate the launch and the office opening.”
Our current staff and board like to sit in chairs, but I guess you got to start somewhere!
“There was also the co-op video contest for grant money from the co-operators. Shoni, Aaron and I produced the most basic video with our iPhones, and we ended up winning the money!”
Guess what we found lingering on our Youtube channel…
“The shared focus on a common goal with a really cohesive group of people is something I have yet to find again. I also met my partner, Aaron Russin, through the carshare, when we hired him as our first employee.”
I guess it usually takes two to romance…
“I had never imagined, when signing up for the carshare, we would be a minivan family. Now we get to be a minivan family a few times per year. Lots of great memories from those trips.”
Thank you for reading, and thank you for joining us over the years as we worked to bring carsharing to the City of Winnipeg! We’re very excited for you to come along with us for the next 10 years of carsharing.