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‘A huge, quantum leap’: Making shared wheels more convenient

Minneapolis, already home to several first-generation car-sharing services, is launching a possible game-changer in the field: Car2Go.

smart cars
Car2Go is deploying hundreds of two-seat Smart cars that can be picked up and dropped off at any unrestricted parking spot in Minneapolis — even in front of your own home.

What if car- and bicycle-sharing could be as simple and convenient as owning — at a fraction of the price? Some transportation leaders see a potential for “exponential” solutions to thorny problems of our autocentric culture ranging from environmental degradation to roadway and parking congestion.

Conrad DeFiebre

Minneapolis, already home to several first-generation car-sharing services, is launching a possible game-changer in the field: Car2Go is deploying hundreds of two-seat Smart cars that can be picked up and dropped off at any unrestricted parking spot in the city — even in front of your own home.

This stationless innovation relies on global positioning technology plus communication links ranging from state-of-the-art (a smartphone app) to old-school (land-line telephones). For hourly or by-the-minute use rates, you get free fuel, insurance and parking. In Minneapolis, it also means at least a tenfold increase in the number of shared cars on tap.

“It’s a huge quantum leap,” Atif Saeed, the city parking systems manager, told the Star Tribune.

A similar form of bicycle-sharing is being tried in a few U.S. locations, although the head of the Twin Cities’ popular Nice Ride sees multiple problems in managing a system that could scatter bikes willy-nilly throughout a service area. (More on that below.)

The big advantage

The obvious advantage of what I’d call open-source vehicle sharing is relieving users of the hassle of getting and returning their conveyance of the moment at one of a few parking garages or a few hundred bike-docking stations. This reduces their in-service efficiency and can require long walks or transit rides at each end of the transaction, a definite turn-off for folks used to the relative convenience of driving or pedaling their own wheels.

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Sharing, however, can simplify parking, particularly with docked bicycles. But stationless car systems require user rigamarole at pickup and dropoff that is more complicated than hopping in your own vehicle.

As explained in a Car2Go promotional video, users must find a car via mobile device, internet or telephone, apply a member card to a reader behind the windshield to unlock it, check for exterior damage, then enter a personal identification number to release the ignition. When you’re done with the car, you have to answer some questions on a display — and don’t forget to “log off” with the member card or you’ll keeping incurring time charges at $13.98 an hour.

Still, with car ownership, operation, taxes, insurance and maintenance running up to $10,000 or more a year, temporary use of an auto should appeal to lots of budget-minded folks. The potential for public benefits is also great.

Driving less

According to Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar, each of the firm’s 11,000 cars worldwide represents up to 20 people who have sold or avoided buying their own. She claims members drive 80 percent less than in their own cars “because they’re paying costs in real time,” and that Zipcar kept 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere last year.

Now, that equals only a week’s worth of emissions from metro New York alone, but car-sharing is still in its startup infancy. Chase says it and other peer-sharing innovations can grow into an “exponential solution” to an exponential climate problem that can’t be solved with linear means. That may be partially true, but remember transportation produces less than a third of all global warming emissions, so help will be needed from other sectors as well, especially electrical energy generation.

Finally, can open-sourcing revolutionize and broaden the appeal of bicycle sharing, too? Social Bicycles (SoBi) is operating its dockless bikes equipped with GPS, integrated locks and onboard computers in a handful of mostly smaller U.S. settings, while recent major bike-sharing initiatives in places such as New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have stuck with the original model.

“Bike sharing is here to stay,” said Bill Dossett, executive director of first-generation Nice Ride Minnesota. “But I have a lot of doubts about whether this newer system could work, except maybe on a smaller scale.”

Maintenance and ‘rebalancing’

The biggest problems, he said, are visibility and the frequent maintenance and “rebalancing” of the fleet required for effective bike sharing. “We have to move these bikes around all the time” to keep high-demand locations stocked, he added. “At our stations, they’re lined up close to the curb where we can get in and out quickly with our trucks. We don’t have to search for them. Without the docks, I think you’d spend 10 times as long doing the same operation and get in everybody’s way.”

In addition, he said, “We get calls all the time from people saying, ‘I’m standing at the [docking station] intersection and I can’t find the bikes.’ So I think visibility would be a bigger problem for dockless services.”

Cars, of course, he noted, are bigger and easier to find — even the tiny, 9-foot-long Smart cars made by Car2Go’s parent company, Daimler of Germany.

The firm began operations in 2008 in its headquarters city of Ulm, where it now has 300 cars. Starting last year, it has put 1,200 in Berlin. It also operates in several other large European and Canadian cities, as well as Austin, Texas; Denver, Colo.; Miami; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Here’s hoping this month’s launch in its eighth U.S. city can jump-start widespread visibility and acceptance of car-sharing in Minnesota.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on its website.


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