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.
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This could be yours, for a little while.

Seattle merges into the super-flexible car-share lane: why one-way is the way to go.

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 Car2Go 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 Car2Go 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.

So if all this new rental-car availability looks bad for Zipcar, how about for the planet? Will this just cram more cars (albeit tiny ones) into the streets, get more people driving than otherwise would, and spew more greenhouse gases? Probably not, on balance. I don’t know about Zipcar’s claim that “each Zipcar shared takes at least 20 personally-owned [sic] vehicles off the road.” 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. Instead of capitalizing on the sunk costs of an owned vehicle, you’ll calculate incremental costs and benefits each time: Is it better today to track down a car2go and spend, say, $7.60 for the 20-minute drive to work, or catch the bus and get some reading done?

It’s a brave new era in urban transportation. I just hope Car2Go’s service is better than its website, which is clunky and overly slick at once. Then again, maybe it’s meant to be viewed on a smartphone rather than computer, while you scout out the nearest Smart Car.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.