Daimler’s all-electric car-share programme in Amsterdam, which launched last week, bills itself as the 21st-century commercial realisation of an idea that grew out of a 1970s socialist co-operative.

The German carmaker’s car2go car-sharing programme, which allows subscribers to pick up and drop off cars wherever they like, is already operating in four other cities, but the Amsterdam scheme is the world’s first all-electric one.

Car2go picked Amsterdam, the company says, partly because the city had experimented with a similar system – the “White Car” scheme – which operated between 1974 and 1986 using hole-punch membership cards and bubble-roofed futurist electric vehicles. The sluggish White Cars proved impractical, but car2go uses white-painted two-seat electric Smart cars in homage to a concept ahead of its time.

Twenty-five years on, car-share programmes such as car2go are growing rapidly worldwide. Car manufacturers say young urbanites are focused on flexible transport but not necessarily ownership. Car-sharing membership more than tripled worldwide between 2006 and 2010 to more than 1.2m.

Traditional car-sharing programmes require customers to return the car to the same place where they picked it up. But one-way car sharing, made practical by IT advances in the past few years, lets customers pick up and drop off the cars anywhere, making it far more convenient.

Car2go plans 300 units in Amsterdam by year’s end, charging €0.29 ($0.39) per minute for a ride.

But as in the White Car days, the programme relies on government participation. The main reason car2go picked Amsterdam for its electric roll-out, says the company’s local director Huub Dubbelman, was the city’s investment in street-side electric charging poles.

“You’re dependent on a certain infrastructure,” Mr Dubbelman says. Amsterdam will have 350 charging stations by the end of the year, the most of any city in Europe. And through April of next year, Amsterdam provides free power at the stations for every electric car in the city.

Overall, Amsterdam has spent €10m since 2006 on promoting electric car transport, leading to criticism of whether the city is getting its money’s worth.

But Eric Wiebes, Amsterdam city alderman for transit, said electric cars pay for themselves by helping meet European air-quality standards. “If you target commercial heavy drivers, switching to electric vehicles is rated one of the single most effective ways of abating air pollution,” Mr Wiebes says.

Car2go’s programmes average five to 10 drivers per car each day, Mr Dubbelman says. That is not entirely welcome news for car manufacturers; experts estimate that each shared car replaces four to 10 private cars.

Car2go subscribers locate available cars via a website or smartphone app, use a magnetic membership card to unlock the car, drive to their destination, and leave it there.

Two thousand subscribers have signed up so far, and about half of car2go’s cars are checked out at any given time. But they face tough competition in Amsterdam from the established Dutch car share company Greenwheels, which still requires clients to return the car to the spot where they picked it up.

Tom Meijer, a Greenwheels subscriber, said he would stick with them for now, but liked car2go’s flexibility. Standing alongside a canal eyeing a pair of car2go cars recharging, Mr Meijer said the city’s charging stations were “springing up like mushrooms”.

A moment later, music conservatory student Sophie Wolke and a friend pulled up in a car2go car. It was their first time using the system and Ms Wolke pronounced herself a convert.

“It’s fantastic. You can just pick it up anywhere, park it anywhere,” Ms Wolke said.

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