It's Nice To Car Share

The more hands on the wheel, the merrier

Car2Go CEO and President Nicholas Cole
Car2Go CEO and President Nicholas Cole (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Last summer was the final straw. Tooling down Louisiana's Highway 1 to witness the effects of the horrific BP oil spill, the folly of my own excess hit me broadside. There I was, in a rented muscle car driving south, burning a solid tank of petrochemical putrefaction, just to witness and shake my head at the rape, pillage, havoc, and what-have-you wreaked by our culture's addiction to oil.

Yes. BP sucked the life out of our coast. But there I was, lead-footing a very comfy and somewhat badass Dodge Charger, sucking up the fossil fuels just to point a finger.

How dare I?

Like I said, last straw. For the last four years, my relationship with cars has changed radically. My empty nest status has been in flux. When I found the cost of maintaining two cars for myself and my college-bound son financially impossible, I began rooting around for options. Paring down to one car between us was the first step.

Capital Metro (no offense, Austin public transpo providers) and my cobbled-together options just didn't cut it. The delayed bus transfers, taxis, rides begged from friends, rental cars, and all the attendant panic attacks were clearly not the solution to this mounting mobility crisis. No bueno.

The boundary around Car2Go's current operating area, as seen above, is known as the geo-fence. (Smaller shaded areas around UT and some state properties indicate locations where parking is limited or restricted.) Car2Go has announced that it will be expanding its geo-fence in the early part of 2011.
The boundary around Car2Go's current operating area, as seen above, is known as the "geo-fence." (Smaller shaded areas around UT and some state properties indicate locations where parking is limited or restricted.) Car2Go has announced that it will be expanding its geo-fence in the early part of 2011.

Less than a month-and-a-half after my tragic and guilt-inducing Gulf Coast sojourn, my car-sharing card was in the mail.

Baby, You Can Share My Car

Though it may seem new, the concept of car sharing has been around the block a time or two. While car shares have been documented as far back as the late 1940s, one of the first successful, ongoing programs was loosely based on and founded by the folks behind Europe's White Bicycle project (think Austin Yellow Bike Project). Amsterdam's Witkar ("white car") launched in the late 1960s and lasted into the mid-Eighties, offering reasonable transportation solutions in the city center, where it provided mobility to more than 4,000 users during its decade-and-a-half of existence.

Varied car-sharing successes and developments continued over the next 25 years in northern Europe and North America. Accord­ing to Innovative Mobility Research – a group working within the University of Calif­ornia's Transportation Sustainability Research Center in Berkeley – as of October 2008, car-share programs were "operating in 22 countries and four continents, accounting for an estimated 650,000 members sharing approximately 20,000 vehicles." By July 2010, more than 10,000 vehicles were being officially shared in North America alone, serving more than 500,000 members.

The most successful operation is Zipcar, launched in Cambridge, Mass., in June 2000. Currently, Zipcar boasts 400,000 members worldwide. In the U.S., it operates in 13 major cities and on more than 100 college campuses, representing 80% of the country's market share for car-share programs. Recently, Zipcar announced that it will bring a fleet to Austin's University of Texas campus in January 2011.

The biggest local car-share news of the past year, however, has been the unmistakable influx of adorable blue-and-white mini-storm-troopers, from German car manufacturer Daimler AG. Its Car2Go program, featuring the Smart brand's Smart ForTwo model, began in November 2009 (and continues currently on a month-to-month basis) with a pilot program in cooperation with the city of Austin. The program placed 200 of the tiny Smarts within the bureaucratic belly to help expand the city's fleet by allowing city employees on- and off-work access to test the car-share model. On May 21, 2010, Car2Go expanded its service to the general public and has, since that date, signed up more than 15,000 members in Central Texas. News of that success has put Austin on the lips, blogs, and pages of car-share enthusiasts, green advocates, and tech-trend-watchers across the globe.

By the time the Car2Go program became available to the general public, it had already been through six months of working out kinks with the city employees' pilot program. This successful beta test, the national and international news buzz, and anecdotal enthusiasm from some Car2Go co-workers certainly factored into my decision to enroll in the program and use it actively. Eventually, I realized I was no longer resigned to having to save for a second car.

Fire Up the Batmobile

It's Nice To Car Share
Photo by Jana Birchum

City spokeswoman Karla Taylor Villalón characterizes the city's relationship with Car2Go as "a zero-revenue model." She says, "We made it very clear from the beginning that we weren't going to put any revenue into the game, that if they wanted to have a pilot program with us, then those were the terms they had to agree to." Nevertheless, the project has been mutually beneficial. City staff can use the cars both for departmental and personal use: "They have two accounts," says Car2Go CEO and President Nicholas Cole. "When they access the vehicle with their membership card, it's either to the city or their personal account." Meanwhile, he says, for the duration of the program, the city allows Car2Go to have "free-floating parking ... at any metered spot" in addition to 31 designated on-street Car2Go parking spaces that can accomodate 62 Smart cars. Of course, from Car2Go's perspective, perhaps even more valuable than the free parking is the free publicity. Says Paul DeLong, Car2Go's head of North American sales and marketing, "Our cars are our biggest advertisement."

Aside from the obvious word-of-mouth that 200 cute cars can generate, the program also provides an altogether different sort of feedback. Each Car2Go vehicle is equipped with an elaborate GPS-based telematic system (not unlike OnStar but unique to the Car2Go program), and the information collected from the 15,000-member data sample can "serve as a catalyst on some level to track population movement and trends Downtown," says Cole. Austin's condo culture, currently mushrooming across the city's urban corridors, is an ideal testing ground for introducing car sharing deep in the heart of car-addicted Texas. "They're paying $1.2 million for a beautiful condo, but they're not even guaranteed parking," says DeLong. He believes that car-share programs can play an important part in the mobility-solutions puzzle.

That raw data has also proven beneficial for the city in other ways, in that it reflects specific vehicle usage in each participating department. "That data-rich environment can help us make better decisions about fleet purchases and reduction," says Villalón. "For instance," she says, "if one department holds on to a car for eight hours, that scenario might not be as beneficial as using it for short hauls for four or five employees throughout the day. Those are the bits of information telematics can give us to better make decisions."

Pounding Pavement, Laying Asphalt

But it wasn't Car2Go that pioneered car sharing in Austin. Back in fall 2006, a group of local enviroluminati launched the first vehicle-sharing program in the state of Texas. Brandi Clark Burton was a founding board member of the fledgling Austin CarShare, which at its peak served 450 members with a modest fleet of seven vehicles. After four years of operation, in July 2010, a few months into the city's relationship with Car2Go, Austin CarShare announced it was ceasing daily operations.

"It was never a totally solid business model," admits Clark Burton, who left her board position in January 2010. "It was always undercapitalized and held together by modest fundraising and the good will of board members." What it did accomplish, aside from its obvious and lofty mission to lower greenhouse-gas emissions (by an estimated 40,000 pounds, according to a farewell letter sent last summer by ACS to its members), was to establish the car-sharing precedent in a town not known for its forward-thinking mass transit models. It also worked its way through the often Byzantine city government processes necessary to establish such a program and negotiated free parking spaces from City Council – no small feat, and a coup that many say laid the groundwork for Austin's continued stake in car-sharing viability. "If you look at other cities," says Clark Burton, car-share programs "pay top dollar for parking spaces."

"Car2Go is doing what we dreamed, by putting high numbers of [shared] cars on the road," says Clark Burton. "But they only have two-seater cars, which is only good for a certain aspect of most people's lives." Austin CarShare's small fleet of seven – which included a truck – provided options that Clark Burton believes are optimal for car sharing's long-term appeal. Clark Burton had hoped that, ultimately, ACS and Car2Go could coexist or even work together. "We were hopeful that we could create a co-branded cooperative solution for people interested in car sharing," she says, "maybe as a nonprofit providing educational outreach" by offering workshops, crunching numbers, and building awareness among potential members. While the ACS board still exists, it is burdened with, as Clark Burton puts it, "a big, fat debt." Still, she says, "It would be great if ACS could survive and be that complement."

Brandi Clark Burton
Brandi Clark Burton (Photo by John Anderson)

"We're definitely keeping communication channels open with the ACS board," says Car2Go's DeLong of a possible future collaboration between the two programs.

Who's Gonna Drive You Home Tonight?

As much of a love affair as Austin is having with car sharing in general and Car2Go specifically, Villalón insists that the city's connection with them is ... well, let's just say it's more of an open relationship. At some point, the city will be flirting with other car-share options (Zipcar being a particularly curious coquette, given its recently announced dalliance with UT). "We've made them fully aware from the beginning that we'll go through an [request for proposals] process and open up to all potential vendors, and they'll be one of the potential vendors," said Villalón. "There's no guarantee that they'll be a selectee. They have to go through the process like anybody else."

No matter where this relationship goes, the mutual benefits are already apparent. What both the city and Car2Go have learned through their collaboration has changed the nature of Austin's transportation future. The city has been able to expand its efficiency and data collection thanks in part to participation in car sharing, and it's using what it has gleaned to further refine the RFPs that will be issued as Austin's car-share possibilities open up in ways not previously imagined. In fact, says Villalón, the city will "probably put out a separate RFP related to installing telematics in existing city vehicles" to track usage, miles driven, length of trips, and so forth.

The initial yearlong term for the city's pilot program ended in November 2010, but the city has decided to continue its relationship with the Daimler program. "It's still a pilot program," says Villalón. "The terms haven't changed. It's still a barter agreement but is now renewed on a month-to-month basis."

Roads? Where We're Going ...

According to research from UC-Berkeley, people who have joined car-share programs have saved $154 to $435 a month on transportation costs. For this single mom feathering an emptying nest and trying to economize while concerned about the fate of our oil-soaked culture, car sharing has proven worthwhile (see "My Hooptie: Kate's Cost Comparison"). But for the concept to become a viable transportation solution for many drivers in a car town like Austin, car sharing needs to kick into overdrive.

"We want to be part of the overall solution here," says Cole, which is why, he says, it's essential to have transit players like Capital Metro at the table to discuss how these various options might complement one another. "They seem very open and willing to listen to new ideas, and we wanted to make sure that they didn't feel that we were here to take away their ridership. Just the opposite, actually. And I think that car sharing is driving more people to public transit, and vice versa – we'll benefit as well." Villalón confirms, "If you look at other cities, you'll find that [car sharing and public transit] are complementary services, not competing."

This past November, Car2Go announced three innovations for spring 2011: The program will add 100 cars to the current fleet of 200; it's replacing the original 200 Smart ForTwos with Daimler's new Car2Go edition, designed by Smart specifically for car sharing; and it's expanding the program's "geo-fence" – or car-share operating area (see map, above).

Studies show that in North America, "the growth of car sharing could be exponential over the next six years," says Cole. "If people are aware of it, they're gonna use it, and if it's not for them, they could always opt to buy a vehicle if they choose to."

Car sharing is a tricky concept for a culture addicted to Texas tea. "Getting people to consider implementing it is a one-on-one conversation," says Clark Burton. "For someone to realistically make the choice to give up a car and rely on a car-share system, there has to be volume." Car2Go's DeLong feels confident in his company's continued role in Austin's car-share revolution: "Fifteen thousand people have signed up. They get it."

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Car2Go, Austin Car Share, Brandi Clark Burton, Daimler, Karla Taylor Villalón, Karla Taylor Villalon, Nicholas Cole, Smart Car, Paul DeLong

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