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Why buy a car when you can rent one for five minutes?

Seattle merges into the super-flexible car-share lane: why one-way is the way to go.
This could be yours, for a little while.

This could be yours, for a little while. Wikipedia

You don’t want to get too carried away too soon over "revolutionary" new alternatives to car ownership. The FlexCar/Zipcar model sounded great when it debuted, but proved too pricey and cumbersome for many of us.

Still, this latest version of car sharing really does sound like a game changer, and Seattle will likely take a big step toward it today. Last Friday the City Council's Transportation Committee endorsed an ordinance authorizing a “free-floating car sharing” pilot program. The whole council is expected to pass it today.

The program in question is Car2Go, which already operates in Europe and six other North American cities, and it takes the “share” part of “car share” to a whole new level. Conventional car rentals contract by the day or week. Zipcar and its imitators rent by the hour or half-hour. Car2Go rents by the minute — for 38 cents a minute, including gas, insurance, and, most notably, parking, with hourly and daily caps that keep it competitive with the competition.

The company buys an annual citywide parking pass for $1,330 per car, rebalanced according to actual usage at year’s end. Members (who pay a $35 fee) can drop their cars2go off at any legal parking spot they choose within Car2Go’s service area, and pick them up where they find them; its website and iPhone/iPad apps guide them to the nearest parked behicles. Since those cars will all be Smart Cars (yes, Daimler Benz is behind Car2Go), that parking will be as easy as it gets.

If those Smart Cars gather like dust bunnies in some corner of Outer Magnolia, I imagine staff will have to go retrieve and redistribute them. Otherwise, they’ll float free, like public bicycles in Amsterdam and Copenhagen — except that in this case users will be obliged, on pain of their credit cards, to keep them clean and relinquish them.

Its service area isn’t specified in the ordinance, but Car2Go has described it as extending from 125th Street on the north to Southwest Lander Street in West Seattle and McClellan (and the Mount Baker rail station) in Southeast Seattle. That last border reflects an adjustment made after Councilmember Bruce Harrell complained about Southeast getting left out; Car2Go originally proposed to go as far south as I-90.

Demographics suggest that before long Car2Go will extend its reach down to Columbia City, which was long Zipcar’s only Southeast station. (Zipcar recently added another at Othello Station, an emerging beachhead of Capitol Hill culture and apartment prices.) “In other cities they draw their lines conservatively and then expand from there,” says Bill LaBorde, an aide to council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen, who sponsored the “free-floating” ordinance.

The prime market for super-short two-seater rentals is clearly young, childless aspiring urbanites/urbanists who have credit cards and disposable income, but not enough of the latter to want to sink it into a car or second car if they can avoid it. That means the cars2go will likely flock to those neighborhoods where Zipcar stations already cluster: downtown, SLU, Capitol Hill, and the U District. But member-drivers will decide.

The great advantage of Cars2Go and other Car Share 2.0 operations can be summed up in two short words: one way! Instead of being bound to return a vehicle where you got it, and pay for every minute in between, you can drive it to work, park it, and forget about it. In this sense Zipcar, with its strictly round-trip rentals, offers less flexibility than conventional rent-a-car chains; you can at least pay them extra to pick up a car in, say, Spokane and drop it off in Seattle.

It looks as though even in its pilot phase Cars2Go will also have the advantage of saturation and availability over Zipcar, if it deploys all the 350 cars allowed in the upcoming trial. That’s nearly twice as many as Zipcar's webiste offers in the same territory. All this may not bode well for Zipcar, which will be squeezed by competition from both by-the-minute upstarts and rent-a-car giants. As local transit maven Peter Sherwin says, “They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they become too profitable the big rental companies will move in.” Indeed, U Haul now offers an hourly “U Car Share” at various college campuses. Hertz offers Hertz on Demand, a membership scheme with hourly rentals, on campuses and in dozens of cities (not including Seattle). Avis is reportedly using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to deploy cars to business parking lots. Clients will pick them up by tapping PINs into their smartphones.

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Posted Mon, Dec 3, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this fine article. The City Council needs to take even more of a lead in supporting safe streets for people walking or bicycling. Greenways are the way to go and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways are their champion.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 6:32 p.m. Inappropriate

No, the City Council really needs to have their heads examined. Cars in rainy, windy, cold Seattle winter months are a necessity.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Is this a news story or an advertisement.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

I don’t know about Zipcar’s claim that “each Zipcar shared takes at least 20 personally-owned [sic] vehicles off the road.”

And neither do your readers. Perhaps a little less, as ivan puts it, advertisement and a little more - uh - skepticism(?), journalism(!) might be in order.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

I am really looking forward to this! I will use this all the time. Thanks Bruce for encouraging them to build further South (I live within walking distance of the Mt. Baker light rail station). Personally, I think the company is making a big mistake by not starting off going to Columbia City or all the way South to Othello. South-Seattlites tend to be more alternative-transportation minded than North-Seattlites because we have the Link light rail and new transportation oriented development. Columbia City is becoming more like Capitol Hill for people who also want more square footage, access to Lake Washington, chickens and an organic garden.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 7:42 p.m. Inappropriate

So tell us, Bill, what do you have against taxicabs?


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

It takes a "progressive" to think $25 an hour is a good deal on a rental car. Of course, we all know what the real idea is here: To make it even harder to park in Seattle.

And I liked this line: "But by making it easier to get a car when you really need one, it and Car2Go make biking, walking, and riding transit more appealing the rest of the time."

Funny, but when I really need a car, I walk out to the driveway and get in.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 2:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I cannot think of too many "one way trips" I would make. I live downtown, so if I want to go to say Southcenter or Northgate Mall, how would I get home? and do you just walk out and walk down the street till you find a car? How about the person that may have been running a really quick errand .. like taking clothes to the cleaners .. I take their car and they are walking back. I'm pretty laid back, but I do like the way Zipcar does it .. reserve a car for a particular time, and yes, I like knowing where I have to go to pick up a car. This might be too laid back for my tastes.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Also, Zipcar rents for $8 to $13 per hour, depending on the type of car you need - and that includes gas and insurance. At 38 cents per minute, the hourly rate for Zipcar is better - so these quick trips are all you should take on this program. (no, I do not work for Zipcar, I am a "Zipster" though!)

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

These Car2Go things are "Smart" cars, which have enough cargo space for two people and four bags of groceries. The roller skates even get a whopping 36 mpg according to the EPA, but less in real life. Such a bargain at two to three times the rate for a Zipcar!

I'd say it's an idea tailor-made for this town's innumerate "progressives," backed by an equally innumerate "progressive" city council that will do anything it can to make it hard to own and use a car here. And that trip to Southcenter? It'll cost ya $25 an hour to shop. Such a deal! Maybe McGinn can get his arena buddy to subsidize you.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 6:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Taxi drivers everywhere should be saying "thank you thank you". They can gain business from this silly model.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 3:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe they should put a bike rack on the back of each one like they do on buses to encourage multimodalism.

Sure would be interested to see where they all end up. Maybe that could be a job for someone who wants a workout and has time-to-spare -- mount the bike on the car, drive it where it needs to be, drop it off, bike to the next one...


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 5:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe the city council should put concrete cars in one out of every eight spaces. Wait -- better not give these people any ideas.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 6:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Notfan, how about hollowed out concrete cars, and homeless people could claim them as homesteads?

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Only if they include self-cleaning toilets!


Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Like the ones they used to have, self washing toilets? For a $1,000,000 (or was it $2,000,000?).

Actually, planters on top with fresh veggies and flowers, and a composting toilet inside. The greenest homeless caverns in town.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

On the one hand, I hope this experiment works.
On the other hand, I hope this doesn't crowd out Zipcar.
I've been using Flexcar/Zipcar since 2006.
It is the only way I can commute to work by bike and still have access to a car for when I need it for meetings.
It's a great solution that I will miss greatly if it goes by the wayside.


Posted Mon, Dec 3, 6:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Ye gods! $22.80 per hour? Taxis seem much more convenient and dare I say it ... reasonable. At least with a taxi, I won't pay by the hour while it waits for me.

However ... I do see this as a viable secondary business for smart taxi services.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 7:39 p.m. Inappropriate

$22.80 an hour plus tax. If it's just sales tax, it's $24.85. But if they charge the same as Hertz, et. al., then it's more like $29 an hour. Maybe Car2Go threw in a sustainability bribe? Taxis? They are so ... so ... blue collar!


Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps not if they had wireless and lattes in every cab.

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 3:25 a.m. Inappropriate

So, I am not clear on the "rebalancing" at the end of the year of the 1330 dollar per car "citywide parking pass" per car. How does this "rebalancing" work?

Would these cars be available for everyone to use, or just those with credit cards? Are there huge background checks? This sounds pretty yuppie to me. The same with this zipcar. Another thing to sign up for, another database with all your personal information. You can have it.

A person can buy a 1000 dollar car that works fine, or even one for cheaper. No one gets into your business, you pay the money, you have a car. I don't need some zipcar/flexcar/car2go office worker in my business.


Posted Tue, Dec 4, 4:05 a.m. Inappropriate

You don't understamd! "Progressives" don't want you to own a car. They want you to rent it from one of their favorite billionaires. Same goes for your house. "Progressives" hate ownership!


Posted Tue, Dec 4, 1:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Re. the supposed $25/$22.85 hourly rates noted by NotFan and others: As I noted in the article, Car2Go sets hourly and daily charge limits. In Portland those are now $14 ("$13.99")--a little more than Zipcar charges for much roomier vehicles--and $74. Factor in gas and parking with no risk of a ticket and these look even better (though perhaps I should have said "more competitive"). But they're not the point. The attraction of one-way is to not pay for all those hours and all that parking while you're at work, dinner and movie, party, whatever, and to not have to watch the clock or leave early to avoid overstaying your reservation. Or worry about getting too drunk to drive and having to retrieve your car the next day.
Of course you're not guaranteed a car in the same spot when you leave, but buses and taxis are always there for back-up. How well it will work would seem to depend on volume.
TVjames's idea for bike racks sounds great--but would all the cars wind up stranded atop the hills?

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, you mentioned caps but didn't say what they are until now. Even $14 an hour is ridiculous. And $74 a day is double a typical rental car rate. I'd note that the city is subsidizing them by granting parking privileges unavailable to ordinary taxpayers. Not to mention CrossCut providing free advertising. By the way, I wonder how many of these will be stolen.


Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Ummm, taxi?

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