Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Op-Ed: Car Share - A New Frontier for Transportation Agencies

Car share has only existed in North America for the last decade but is rapidly gaining popularity as a transportation alternative.  In 2012 over 800,000 people in the United States belonged to one or more car sharing companies, a 44% increase from 2011 [1].  Today, 25 car share companies operate in the American market, which include large corporations such as Zipcar (owned by Avis), car2go (owned and operated by Diamler AG), and smaller peer-to peer networks such as Getaround and RelayRides. New estimates predict the car share has passed the one million member mark in the United States, and is expected to grow to 15 million members in North America by 2020 [3].

Growth of Car Share Members per Year [1]

With the rise in popularity of car share, coupled with the benefits of car share use to a transportation network, I found it interesting that  transportation agencies have yet to operate car share fleets.  Transportation agencies already manage transit fleets, routes, vehicle maintenance, and even electronic fares. Owning and operating a car share fleet could be the next step in new frontier for transportation access -  car share has the potential to better serve constituents in a way a bus or rail line never could. Adding to the case for public operation of car share, a 2006 study by the University of California at Berkeley found car share members are more likely to take transit trips and have lower overall vehicle miles traveled [VMTs] than non-members, thereby benefiting the goals of most transportation regions. [2]

Car Share Policy

Many cities and transportation agencies are already flirting with the idea of car share integration in the transportation network. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) recently announced a bold plan to convert hundreds of on-street parking spaces to car share pods. [4]  These car share pods would be reserved exclusively for car share companies willing to rent more convenient and accessible space within San Francisco - a city that already has heavy demand for on-street parking. The announcement follows a successful year-long pilot program with City CarShare, which aimed to “to better utilize transportation demand management strategies, improve parking management, and make transit, walking, and bicycling more attractive, car sharing plays a role in helping the SFMTA and therefore the city achieve its goals.” [4]

Other cities are also embracing the benefits of car share with transportation policy. One company in particular, car2go, had negotiated on-street parking agreements with cities across the United States - including Portland, Austin, Washington D.C., San Diego, Seattle, Miami, and most recently Denver [5].  Unlike traditional car sharing programs or car rental companies, car2go is not station-based and can be parked in most any on-street parking space. The newest inductee for car2go agrees that the City of Denver needs to get involved with car share.  "We think this is really the time to move forward on this [car2go]," said Robert Ferrin, Parking and Planning Administrator for Denver's Public Works Department [3].

car2go parked in downtown Seattle  [8]

More Private Car Sharing, More Problems

Parking space availability is major concern for car share companies. Until recently, most car share companies are privately-owned and have relied on negotiating with landowners for parking residency. As a result, car share parking locations are typically connected to abandoned gas stations, underneath freeways overpasses, tucked away in over-sized parking garages, or otherwise undesirable land. The less desirable a car share parking location is the less likely the shared car will get use. [6] This is especially true if the space is not in a convenient or visible location, such as next to retail establishments.

However, if transportation agencies operated car share systems they could designate car share locations on city streets and public spaces. This would also avoid the “red tape” of negotiating land use leases with corporations as demonstrated by the car share pod concept or car2go.

A typical ZipCar location in a dimly lit parking structure.

Equity Issues with Private Ownership

Parking isn’t the the only issue with private ownership of car share. Despite it’s growing popularity, low-income neighborhoods are typically left out of the car share market. Zipcar, City CarShare, and other car sharing companies target neighborhoods with densely populated markets, where there is strong public transportation already available, and wherever parking is most restricted [7].

Low income neighborhoods are often on the outskirts of these densely-populated markets, and therefore do not get car share programs that could otherwise thrive in their neighborhood. In the case of City CarShare in San Francisco which has more than 100 fleet locations smattered throughout the city limits, only a few City CarShare vehicles exist in low-income neighborhoods [7]. However, closer-in San Francisco neighborhoods with higher incomes such as Hayes Valley, the Castro, and the Marina are flooded with dozens of City CarShare vehicles to choose from [7].

Transportation agencies, and in this particular case the SFMTA, wouldn't be as held accountable to the profit margins as privately-owned car share companies. The SFMTA would have the power to ensure car share locations are evenly distributed throughout the cities, making car share equitable for more than just select number of zip codes.

The Future of Car Share

Although taking on the car share market would be a major endeavor for a transportation agency, there are promising long-term benefits.  As demonstrated by the investment of private companies, interest in car share exists and will continue to grow. As metropolitan regions continue to commit to lowering vehicle dependency and increasing alternative transportation options, car share is just one of the many solutions transportation agencies should considering incorporating into multi-modal operations.


[1]  Stephanie Steinberg and Bill Vlasic (2013-01-25). "Car-Sharing Services Grow, and Expand Options". The New York Times.
[2] Cervero, et all. San Francisco City CarShare: Longer-Term Travel-Demand and Car Ownership Impacts. 2006.
[3] http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_22930485/denver-explores-ways-expand-car-sharing-city
[4] SFMTA [http://www.sfmta.com/cms/cmta/documents/PAGCarSharingPolicy05172013.pdf]
[5] https://www.car2go.com/en/denver/
[6] Millard-Ball, A., G. Murray, J.T. Schure, C. Fox, and J. Burkhardt. (2005) Car-Sharing:
Where and How It Succeeds. Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 108:
Transportation Research Board, Washington, D.C.
[7] http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/2011/07/san-francisco-car-sharing-rare-low-income-areas
[8] http://evnewsreport.com/category/car-sharing-2/

1 comment:

  1. I really like this idea! You bring up a good point about equity issues created from private companies having to make a profit.


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