Now ‘almost mainstream,’ car sharing has early roots in Ottawa

Wilson Wood, co-founder of Ottawa-based Vrtucar, which merged with Communauto in 2016. Photo provided
Editor's Note

This story was updated to reflect Communauto's local headcount.

The co-founder of a pioneering car-sharing company said he is proud Ottawa was early to embrace the emerging trend in transportation.  

Co-founders Wilson Wood and Chris Bradshaw launched Vrtucar in Ottawa in 2000, based on a similar service started in Quebec City known as Communauto. Vrtucar later merged with Communauto in 2016.

“The idea (was) that cars and cities were never designed for each other,” Wood said. 

The car-sharing trend originated in Europe before making its way across the Atlantic to Canada. Ottawa was one of the first North American cities to embrace the service.

Car-sharing services see users pay membership fees for access to a fleet of cars. The company takes care of all aspects of vehicle ownership, such as maintenance and parking, and the membership fee includes insurance for the driver. Drivers then book the vehicles online. 

“I like that I can get a car with fairly short notice for quick errands that I may not be able to do with public transit,” said Laura Laskey, who has been a member of Vrtucar for five years. “I'm also able to use Vrtucar for longer trips, like camping.”

The business, which now has about 5,000 users in Ottawa, started with just five staff members and one car — a silver Toyota Echo. 

Before launching the business, Wood and Bradshaw got in touch with one of the pioneers of Canadian car sharing, Benoît Robert, president of Communauto. Robert became crucial in helping them launch their service in Ottawa and remains a key figure in the company’s future.

By the end of the first year, Vrtucar expanded to 35 users and three cars. The next several years experienced slow but steady growth until about 2004-05 when the membership increased rapidly, Wood said.

As for what led to the growth, Wood said it was the company’s philosophy.  

“The car is secondary, it’s the concept: The car is just an appliance,” he said. “The real efficiency is that you have about 25 users sharing one car.”

Typically, 10 of those 25 users have either sold their car, delayed the purchase of a vehicle or never bought a car in the first place, Wood added. The idea is that car sharing works in conjunction with public transit, not that it competes with it. 

Nick Stow, a senior planner with the City of Ottawa, has been a Vrtucar and then Communauto member for more than 10 years. He said using the combination of a bike, public transit and Communauto means there is no need for him to own a vehicle. 

“For someone who lives downtown, it allows me to live my life without an automobile,” he said. “Vrtucar (Communauto) allows me to do things that I can’t do on a bicycle.” 

Wood said joining forces with Communauto felt like a natural fit. The two companies had been working together for years, and Vrtucar was even using Communauto’s vehicle booking software. 

The merger ensured that car sharing would have a future in Ottawa as Wood eyes retirement. 

“We’re community-based, public transit-focused car sharing. That was my belief; that’s what (Robert) believes. So it was a natural merger,” Wood said. 

Both Laskey and Stow said they haven’t noticed any difference in service since the companies merged. 

Wood said the only real task has been switching the car decals that say Vrtucar to Communauto — something he hopes to have completed within the next year. 

Additionally, Communauto has kept the same staff in Ottawa and even moved its call service to the national capital, adding additional employees and bringing the local headcount up to 15. Wood’s former business partner Bradshaw died in November 2018 but is remembered for his environmental advocacy involving projects such as Vrtucar. 

Along with Ottawa, Communauto has service in Waterloo, Hamilton, London, Guelph, Kingston, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Gatineau, Sherbrooke, Edmonton, Halifax and Paris.

After 25 years in business, Communauto has about 50,000 users and 2,200 vehicles, but Wood said there is still room to grow. 

He said he has a vision of a city where cars are not vital and vehicle ownership isn’t common. 

“I don’t really like cars,” he said with a laugh.

Looking back, Wood said he is proud Ottawa was one of the early cities to get in on the car-sharing trend, adding this reflects a lot on the people who live there. 

“It’s a testament to the people of Ottawa who said, ‘Oh yeah, that idea is just crazy enough to work’,” he said. “It’s now almost mainstream.”