Car-Sharing Offers a Social Method for Sustainability

For Kate Beckstrand, a special education teacher with Saint Paul Public Schools and a mother of two small children, driving as little as possible makes her world smaller. Not in a parochial or insular way, but one that builds community and supports the St. Paul neighborhood she calls home.

“I get my hair done in the neighborhood. I shop mostly in the neighborhood,” says Beckstrand, 37. “I don’t go beyond a two-mile radius for a lot of things.”

Like 93 percent of residents in Macalester-Groveland — a leafy, largely residential area that borders Summit Avenue to the north and the Mississippi River to the west — Beckstrand’s household has a vehicle. Two cars, in fact. Therein lies the challenge for Beckstrand and her husband, Mike, who are committed to living as sustainably as possible and to modeling those practices for their two kids.

Kate Beckstrand pilots (from left) her daughter, Cece, 4, and son, Peter, 7, and a neighbor child on her RadWagon 4 Electric Cargo Bike (“I love it!”); photo provided.

Two bus lines close by (one of which connects to the A Line bus rapid transit route), an electric cargo bike and a healthy love of walking all mean the family has relatively little need to drive. That’s why Kate and Mike’s first car, a 2005 Toyota Corolla with more than 200,000 miles, rarely leaves their three-car garage except to go out on loan.

The Beckstrands bought a second car in the summer of 2019, after their second child was born. Accustomed to living with one car, and close to mass transit, they decided to share the old Toyota with friends and neighbors. Word quickly spread, and a car-sharing network of five households coalesced: “Some are single people, some families, some couples,” Kate explains. The car is usually out on loan a day or two a week.

“We like car-sharing for the sense of community. It’s another way to touch base and contribute to the people around us.”

Kate Beckstrand, school teacher and mom

The practice started with a friend whose only form of transportation was a motorcycle. “It broke down,” Beckstrand recalls. “He needed something for a couple months, so we loaned him our old 2005 Corolla.”

No one pays to use the car, though Kate and Mike ask that users return it filled with gas. The couple covers the cost of insurance and basic maintenance. Sometimes a borrower returns the Corolla with a bottle of wine (“it’s definitely not expected”) or chocolate treats for the children — or offers to babysit the Beckstrand kids, who are 4 and 7, so their parents can enjoy some time away.

When the Beckstrands do drive, usually for large grocery runs, they try to combine multiple errands in one trip. “We view the second car as a great privilege,” says Kate, noting that she and her husband, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, both are fortunate to have advanced degrees and good jobs. “We just want to share it with others.”

The Socialism of Sharing

One semi-regular user of the Toyota is Beckstrand’s college chum Kelly Prosen, 38. An outdoors enthusiast, Prosen lives in the Kingfield neighborhood of Minneapolis and has been car-free for the past eight years. So has her fiancé, Metro Transit bus driver David Feldmann.

The couple hosts regular outings and a podcast, “Adventure! (Within Reason),” that focus on Minnesota State Parks. Although their multi-modal lifestyle conforms with their values — which Prosen frames as “environmentalism and ecological justice” — being car-free makes it tough to get to state parks on the weekends. That’s where car-sharing comes in handy.

Otherwise, Prosen and Feldmann do their best to bike, walk or ride the bus. “I think cities should be transit- and pedestrian-friendly first,” Prosen explains, “and the only way that I can contribute to that is to not own a car.”

Asked if the car-sharing arrangement with Beckstrand is “resource sharing,” Prosen, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, says she prefers the term “mutual aid.” She believes that transit should be “fast, free and safe for everyone.” How can she work toward that goal? To ride the bus or light-rail herself.

“Ideally, we’d own less individually and more collectively,” Prosen says. “We’d organize our lives in such a way that having a car-share would work among a group of people.”

With rare exception, the arrangement that the Beckstrands established does work. The Corolla once “died in the alley” when someone was borrowing it, Kate recalls. Another time, a tire blew out while the car was in southern Minnesota, and the borrowers paid for a new tire. It’s an “informal understanding,” Kate says, that whoever uses the car is liable for whatever may go wrong on their watch.

Community Action

Being able to borrow her friend’s car allows Prosen the occasional break from a transit system that requires “an hour and at least two transfers” to get from her home in Minneapolis to some parts of St. Paul. The car-focused design of most Twin Cities roads — even inside the urban core — limits where she can look for jobs once she completes her inter-religious chaplaincy program at United Theological Seminary.

David Feldmann and Kelly Prosen are car-free enthusiasts who spend their weekends in state parks (photo, Facebook, Adventure Within Reason podcast).

Prosen and Feldmann, who will marry in June, “are just two people in a metro area of 2 million.” Being car-free, she says, “is what we can do.”

More than 93 percent of households in Minnesota have at least one car, according to Forbes.com, which ranks the state 29th in U.S. car ownership. Having grown up in a suburb where driving was both a rite of passage and required — with parents’ jobs in one direction and kids’ activities in another — Prosen says she grew tired of seeing households with “three or four cars for five people,” a practice she now pronounces to be “insane.”

Informal car-sharing among friends not only builds community but allows each household to leave a lighter footprint on the planet. That is the Beckstrands’ intention. “We want to brainstorm with people about how to do this,” says Kate, anticipating the day — hopefully not soon! — when the 2005 Toyota will die for good. “I want to keep the conversation going about how to be creative.”

Photo at top by John Matychuk on Unsplash

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

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Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.