Suburban car sharing at Commuter Rail park-and-ride lots

Suburban park-and-ride lots are a fact of life. While rail stations near housing result in better land use and higher ridership (Windsor Gardens in Norwood, for example, has 600 riders per day with no parking. Of course, driving downtown from Windsor Gardens is a 1 to 2 hour endeavor at rush hour, on the train it’s 35 minutes.), there are some areas where sprawling populations are too dispersed for walkable stations and park-and-rides make some sense. (And, no, I’m not referring to somewhere like Ashland, Westborough or Kingston, where 1990s-era stations were built away from downtowns but next to big parking lots; despite this these stations have ridership no higher than Windsor Gardens.)

Take Littleton, for example. Its old train station is little more than a crossroads, not even the center of town, so the park-and-ride nearer routes 2 and 495 makes sense (the town itself is quite dispersed, a combination of sprawl and conservation land). The same could be said of South Acton, where the always-full parking lot combines with a small density node, although a walking-based station at West Acton would help to relieve some of the parking capacity issues at South Acton. Littleton’s parking is also at capacity, and will likely continue to increase when new schedules come in to effect this spring with 30-minute travel times to Porter Square, speeds unattainable by car without traffic, let alone on Route 2 at rush hour.

Littleton’s observed catchment extends to several nearby towns, and grassy areas adjacent to the lot are frequently used by motorists to park when the lot is full. Expansion is possible but not cheap: the MBTA-owned parcel is on a slope and construction costs would exceed the $5000 to $10000 per space typical of construction on level ground. But there is a need for more parking: the Fitchburg corridor serves a dispersed population with poor highway access to Downtown Boston, and providing parking allows many more people to use the train rather than drive downtown.

What makes Littleton somewhat different from other park-and-rides is the presence of several large nearby corporate campuses, most notably Cisco three miles to the south and IBM three miles to the north. Each campus houses more than 1000 employees, and each has abysmal non-driving access. (IBM is served by the end of the LRTA Route 15, which takes only 45 minutes to get to Lowell’s train station.) For all intents and purposes, access to either of these campuses requires a car.

Until the double track was completed to Littleton and the station there rebuilt, there were no reasonable reverse-peak transit options to get past South Acton, a longer drive from either of these campuses. But with the new schedules—and the recent promise of an even earlier train to Fitchburg—there are now hourly-or-better reverse-peak trains to Littleton, allowing city dwellers to get to Littleton’s train station without driving (even against peak traffic, getting to and from Littleton at rush hour is no picnic). Of course, this station is still miles from major employers, hence the proverbial last mile issue.

There are some possible solutions. Bicycles are allowed on reverse-commute trains, and the roads in Littleton and Boxborough are relatively bikeable (cyclists can use a closer back entrance to Cisco closed to vehicular traffic to keep cars from cutting through local neighborhoods). But cycling isn’t for everyone, especially given the narrow area roads and heavy rush hour traffic. Uber operates in the area, but the density of cars is relatively low (meaning potentially long wait times) and fares high: $7 to $10 from the train station to employer, as much as the train ticket from Boston. Corporate shuttles are another option: RedHat and Juniper run a shuttle from Alewife to their Westford campuses and the new CrossTown Connect TMA is exploring shuttle services from Littleton. But shuttles are expensive; a single route can cost $50,000 to $100,000 annually.

If only there was a parking lot full of cars sitting unused all day …

Imagine the following:

Jack lives in Boxborough and works in Boston. He leaves home at 7:30 to catch the 7:45 express train at Littleton. He arrives at the parking lot and parks in a reserved parking space at the Littleton station and takes the train to work. In the evening, he takes the 5:35 express from North Station which arrives at 6:25, gets in his car and drives home. 

In the meantime, Jill, who lives in Cambridge, gets on the train at Porter at 7:53 and arrives in Littleton at 8:38. She then gets in Jack’s car—parked in that reserved space nearest to the platform—and drives 10 minutes to IBM, where she works. In the evening, she returns the car to the same spot in the station and gets on the 5:15 train back to Boston, and the car is awaiting Jack’s return.

What incentive would Jack have for letting Jill borrow his car like this? Cars aren’t cheap, gas isn’t free, and most people won’t lend their car to a stranger. But Jack can be incentivized to lend Jill his car. Littleton’s parking availability is 2%, meaning that Jack isn’t guaranteed a space, especially taking this later express train. And the cost to park is $4 per day, or $70 per month, meaning that the annual cost for Jack to park is $840. In this scenario, we can offer Jack  free parking with a guaranteed space; money is nice, but the extra 10 minutes at home every morning may be worth a lot more to Jack than $840. This idea might work at park-and-rides which aren’t at capacity, but the guaranteed space is a kicker.

But with free parking, isn’t the T just subsidizing Jack and Jill’s arrangement? Not at all. If there wasn’t a vehicle available for Jill’s last-mile commute, she wouldn’t take the train, which costs her nearly $3700 per year. So the net increase in revenue for the T is nearly $3000 annually.

Jack is still letting a stranger borrow is car. But maybe Jill isn’t such a stranger after all. There is some precedent: car sharing company called RelayRides (now Turo) pioneered peer-to-peer car sharing in the past decade, although they have now relaunched based on longer rentals. FlightCar has a very similar model to the plan proposed here, except for longer periods of time at airports. Instead of paying $20 to $30 per day to park at the airport, your parking is free—and you get paid if someone rents your car. More to the point, Jill is an employee of a major corporation, not a random person getting off of a train. Jack would be assured that she wouldn’t go off joyriding during the day, but rather drive the car a few miles to the company parking lot (where, perhaps, Jill would have preferred parking). And because employee schedules are very set, it would be the same person driving Jack’s car every day, not whoever swiped their Zipcard.

Once money changes hands, car sharing does get more complicated, although this model could be used in the longer term to help further reimburse Jack for fuel and maintenance expenses beyond the parking savings. Insurance would also be an issue, and an umbrella policy would have to be set up, perhaps through a TMA or a larger organization overseeing this program if it were to grow. A safety net would need to be provided, but one already exists: both Jack and Jill could participate in an employer-based guaranteed ride home program in case Jack needed to come home early and there was no way for Jill to get to work otherwise, or if Jack called in sick and there was no car for Jill to drive to work, or if Jill stayed late at the office and Jack needed to fetch his car.

Technologically, the car could be set up in a number of ways. The easiest (and cheapest) would be to give Jill a spare key; this would work for a test project. A Zipcar-esque swipe-in system could be set up, but these cost hundreds of dollars to install, and might not be appropriate for a pilot. Installing GPS doesn’t come free, but Jack might have more peace of mind with tracking of Jill’s movements (when she’s driving his car) and even text alerts to let him know when she had returned the car to the station, so he would be assured of having a car waiting for him to get home at the end of the day.

There’s also the question of vacation schedules: if Jack goes on holiday, there is no car waiting for Jill. At those times, back-up cars could be used. Jill would have separate keys for back-up cars of other participants in the program. When Jack wasn’t working, she could use some of those cars, and those participants would also benefit from the guaranteed and free parking. (This would be even easier to set up with car sharing technology.) And since Jack and Jill would have each other’s emails, they would know vacation schedules ahead of time, so there wouldn’t be surprises. (It’s only an issue when Jack is on vacation anyway; when Jill is out of the office, Jack’s car just sits in Littleton all day.) If there were five outbound participants in this program, perhaps two back-up cars would be necessary.

In addition to cost, this program would be superior to shuttles because of the flexibility involved. Because Jack’s commute downtown from Littleton is nearly an hour each way and Jill’s commute from Littleton is only a few minutes, she has the ability to take an earlier or later train and still get in a full work day without affecting Jack’s commute. With a shuttle, it would require multiple trips at a higher cost. With shared cars, Jill could shift her schedule by an hour with no ill effect for Jack. Shuttles also lose efficiency when they have to make multiple stops at multiple employers, which are often not in a straight line (violating Jarrett Walker’s “be on the way” principle) while car sharing would allow commuters to more easily disperse to suburban job sites.

Assuming Jill switches from driving the whole way to driving and transit, and assuming 225 work days per year, she would save more than 10,000 vehicle miles traveled annually. Jack might save VMT as well; on days when the lot is full, he’d have a guaranteed parking space and wouldn’t have to drive in to work—or to a nearer park-and-ride like Alewife—when the lot was full. In addition, this sort of scheme, at a larger scale, may actually increase the utilization of the parking lot. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine one inbound commuter parking at 7:00 and a reverse-commuter leaving at 7:45 and a second inbound commuter parking at 8:30 and a second reverse-peak commuter using that car at 8:45, which doubles the efficiency of a single parking space.

With enough utilization, a shuttle would make sense: if 15 cars were being driven between Littleton and Cisco, for example, a 14-person van meeting each train would be feasible. But shuttles often suffer from a chicken-and-egg conundrum: without riders in place, there’s little incentive to invest $100,000 annually in a shuttle. Car sharing could provide a bridge to shuttle service for larger employers, and for smaller ones, provide a link for employees living in the city to work at suburban campuses.

Like park-and-rides, suburban office parks are a feature of the suburban and exurban landscape—like it or —although they are quickly losing allure (GE moving from suburban Connecticut to downtown-ish Boston is one such example). But they won’t disappear overnight. By leveraging the existing Commuter Rail network, park-and-ride infrastructure and the idle cars occupying the lots, we may be able to provide better options for commuters trying to get to these offices without trying to retrofit transit on to a landscape where it doesn’t work well. This wouldn’t be a panacea for the poor design of dispersed office parks. But it would provide transit accessibility for minimal cost.

Let the market decide how many spaces to build

There’s a lot of chatter about a proposed development on an otherwise-unused piece of land in Allston. It’s been mentioned in the Boston Globe, on The Atlantic Cities and elsewhere. It’s not the size of the development, but what it lacks: the property owner plans to build 44 apartments without a single private parking space.

Boston, like most other cities, has minimum parking requirements for new development. This is the case even though much of the older housing stock has no parking, and it still perfectly habitable and in many cases quite desirable. But since the 1950s, adding housing without adding lots of parking has been frowned upon. In order to have even a chance to get the plan through the zoning board, the developer, Sebastian Mariscal, is throwing out all sorts of mitigation efforts. These include public green space, private gardens for each unit, storage units, bike parking (two spots per unit) and storage lockers. But he goes further still: he proposes making each resident sign a lease addendum that, while living in the development, they will not own a car.

It is this rather radical part of the plan that has gotten a lot of attention, and in some cases, praise. I don’t fault Mariscal for proposing it, but he shouldn’t have to. The minimum number of parking spaces a developer builds should be dictated by the market, not by the zoning board of appeals. If a developer wants to build a lower number of parking spaces than would be allowable, they should darn well be able to. Forcing them to build more spaces increases the cost of each unit, which in turn reduces the amount of housing available, which in turn raises the cost for everyone.

Neighbors may whine about the potential for reduced parking availability clogged streets and gridlock, but their complaints should fall on tin ears. There is no guaranteed right to parking. Especially in a neighborhood like Allston, which, as the Atlantic points out, is mostly pavement, there should be ample parking available to those who need it. If the area is developed enough that there is a dearth of parking (and 44 units won’t do this), someone who owns a driveway or parking lot will rent spaces. Then residents can use the marketplace to decide between the cost of a guaranteed, monthly parking spot and the time it takes to search for street parking.

Cities should have a vested interest in making sure that parking is not overbuilt. Too much parking raises the cost of housing, detracts from street life and, as cost for parking falls, disincentivizes the use of alternative modes of transportation. But disallowing projects because they fail to provide parking only serves to drive up the cost of housing, increase congestion and pollution and, in turn, detract from the city’s tax base as less housing is built. In addition, if more parking is built than required, it can lead to half-empty concrete parking hulks which have too much sunk cost to be converted to another use (see: Kendall Square). Plus, Allston has plenty of parking, even though you don’t need a car. The proposed housing is a stone’s throw from a drug store, a major supermarket, half a dozen bus lines and the streetcar. It’s a place that doesn’t need parking. So why force it to be built?

Toronto has allowed a skyscraper—first proposed in 2011—to go forward with 42 stories, 315 units and no parking spaces. The developer said “if we couldn’t sell a unit without providing a parking spot, then we wouldn’t be selling those units. The proof is in the pudding—we sold 270 units without parking in nine days.” And, so far, Toronto has not (yet) devolved in to a gridlock of traffic looking for a parking space.

Lack of parking is a perfect instance in which the free market should take charge. It’s high time that cities stop meddling in developers way and let them build the housing they want to build, whether it has “enough” parking or not.

Big Car Sharing News

You may remember that I am interested in car sharing. You may also remember that I stated that I didn’t think car sharing was a good investment. You are going to hear a lot about Zipcar being bought by Avis today. This may be a mutually beneficial agreement: Avis gets in to the hot car-sharing market, and gets to leverage its much larger business for Zipcar’s benefit. (I’m assuming it will be run as a separate brand; they stand to lose a lot of cache, especially in competitive markets, if they drop the successful Zipcar marketing.)

But as for the investment piece: yes, investors are getting a 50% premium on the current stock price (ZIP), and almost double the recent lows it hit this year. It’s also 2/3 the price of the IPO a year ago, and less than half of the post-IPO heights Zipcar realized in 2011. So anyone who got excited about Zipcar and bought stock at the IPO price or above is going to take a haircut. And Avis Budget (CAR) doesn’t appear to be a major growth property.

This sale doesn’t mean that car sharing is mature, but that it is growing. Independent CSOs will continue to have a foothold  in several cities, competing with Zipcar and keeping prices down in those markets (see, in particular, Chicago and San Francisco in the US, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada; and then there’s Montreal where Communauto is such a force that Zipcar has steered clear). It will be interesting to watch this market continue to evolve.

I love car sharing. I just wouldn’t invest in it.

[They say that hindsight is 20/20. So I’ll preface this post with the fact that I was making this argument years ago, as in 2010, well before ZIP ever went public. (A quick search of my Gmail for Zipcar IPO did the trick.)]

Car sharing is great. It’s not applicable to every market (i.e. it works better in Boston than Houston) and in the short term, outside of dense cities with pricey parking it will be a niche product. But its users dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road, and they also reduce the amount that they drive when they pay the full cost of driving, not just the marginal cost after the static costs of insurance, depreciation and parking. From its infancy less than 15 years ago (most large city car sharing organizations—CSOs—launched between 1998 and 2002) it has grown to an almost-mainstream product with close to 10,000 cars and a million drivers in North America.

But I’m not about to invest in it. And Zipcar (ZIP), which went public last year, has promptly lost two thirds of its value.

Zipcar’s aim in an IPO was to both pay back their initial investors and raise money for expansion. However, as they expand, they are not going to be able to exploit economies of scale in the way many growing companies can. They have entered their best markets, and further expansion will be in to markets with lower margins and which require more marketing and long term demographic change (Atlanta instead of Boston). The heady days of the early ’90s, when car sharing organizations in dense cities threw cars on to the streets as fast as they could, have come to a close. The top neighborhoods are well-served. Future expansion will be slow and methodical, and not particularly profitable.

In fact, several successful car sharing organizations don’t really ever intend to turn a profit. The following are major car sharing organizations in the US and Canada:

  • Zipcar, for-profit start-up, founded 2000 in Boston, main vendor in Boston, New York, DC, Portland and Seattle, with a presence in all large markets except Montreal. Bought Flexcar (for-profit) in 2007; Flexcar had originally been formed as a public-private partnership in Seattle in 2000, and bought a Portland-based not-for-profit (Car Sharing Portland) in 2002 before expanding and being bought by Zipcar, apparently close to bankruptcy.
  • Hertz on Demand, for-profit spinoff of car rental agency, founded 2008, New York
  • Mint, for-profit spinoff of parking garage manager, founded 2008, New York
  • City CarShare, independent not-for-profit, founded 2000 in San Francisco (for a couple of years, San Francisco had competition between CCS, Zipcar and Flexcar)
  • I-Go, not-for-profit division of a larger organization, founded 2002, Chicago
  • PhillyCarShare, not-for-profit start-up in 2002 sold to Enterprise in 2011
  • CommunAuto, for-profit start-up in Montreal in 1994
  • Autoshare, for-profit start-up in Toronto, 1998
  • Modo, founded as The Car Coop, cooperative founded in Vancouver in 2000
  • Most smaller CSOs are non-profits (HOURCAR, Ego, Ithaca Carshare, Carshare VT) with a few for-profits (CommunityCar, OccasionalCar) and coops as well.
Interestingly, every city with even a medium-sized car sharing scheme, except New York and Washington D.C., has had, at one point, it’s own homegrown car sharing service. Zipcar only succeeded in using it’s size to run Flexcar in to merging (and this may have been more due to management policies on Flexcar’s part) and PhillyCarShare to a sale (again, quite possibly due to management issues). Washington, D.C. is the only city in which competition has markedly decreased (it and San Francisco had Zipcar-Flexcar competition before that merger; San Francisco retains competition with CityCarShare); the rest of the markets Zipcar has entered it has failed to dislodge the existing player in town. (That being said, with the exception of New York no one has entered a Zipcar market after they had established a presence.)
But look at how the major players were founded:
  • 4 as for-profit start-ups
  • 2 as other for-profits (Both in the New York market)
  • 4 as not-for-profits
  • 1 as a coop
About half of the players in car sharing started off as non-profits, and two (I-Go and CityCarShare) remain non-profit today. I’d be reticent to invest in a business model where nearly half of the original founders didn’t see the opportunity or necessity for profits.

There are three main issues which will keep car sharing from ever being a terribly profitable business. (Yes, it likely will achieve a steady level of profitability in some markets and may pay small returns to investors, but won’t grow dramatically.) One is the issue of car sharing being a capital-intensive business. The second is that, charging by time, CSOs are hamstrung by there being only 24 hours in a day. Finally, for both mission and practical reasons, car sharing organizations are one of very few businesses which often actively encourage their customers to use their product as little as possible. None of these helps the bottom line.

As far as capital goes, car sharing is expensive. CSOs have to buy (generally) new cars, install a couple thousand dollars of hardware, and continually maintain them. Unlike rental car companies, which can sell their fleet seasonally or to adjust to market conditions, CSOs decal their vehicles and install locking mechanisms, relays and mileage tracking devices. These investments raise the barrier to selling capital quickly, and most CSOs keep their vehicles for several years, not several months. Having a lot of capital tied up in depreciating assets encourages stability and slow growth, but not necessarily high profits.

With millions of dollars of capital tied up in vehicles, car sharing organizations are hamstrung by the number 24: the number of hours in a day. This, however, is misleading, because very little car sharing takes place overnight, when many CSOs have reduced rates. In addition, most car sharing organizations have daily rates, which allow consumers to cap the cost of a shared car at around the cost of an 8 hour rental, but this also caps the potential revenue at 8 hours. Since car sharing breaks even with between 5 and 6 hours of use per day, this leaves a small margin for profitability. And even without daily rates, customers become agitated when availability dips, generally around 9 hours a day (50%, assuming the hours of 12 to 6 a.m. rarely see car usage).

Is there room for profitability between the break-even point and the daily rate barrier? Yes, but not much. Usage is lower on weekdays, and if cars saw maximum profitability on weekdays they’d be swamped on weekends. Thus, most CSOs have higher rates on weekends (this is what we call supply and demand). And since the fixed costs of buying, parking and insuring a vehicle is quite high, there is little room to reduce the break-even point. Some cars in high-use areas will always profit, but a CSO will generally have fringe cars in neighborhoods which see less use (but absorb extra demand and expand the geographical market). And cars which do very well in the summer often see usage decline in the winter, but with annual parking space contracts and investments, CSOs can’t change their fleet size based on the season. So making a profit in car sharing is akin to threading the needle of a balance sheet.

Finally, once a member joins a car sharing organization, they aren’t generally encouraged to drive as much as possible. For one thing, some members might find that, by driving a lot, they would be financially better off buying a car, depriving a CSO of a highly-valued member. In addition, non-profit CSOs, and many of their for-profit brethren, are motivated by environmental goals, and find it hard to encourage their members to “drive as much as you can!” So car sharing is one of very few businesses where a consumer is told to buy a product and then use it as little as possible. (Imagine, for instance, McDonalds running ads saying “cheeseburgers are a great alternative to eating at home, but really you should eat our cheeseburgers only when you’re really in a pinch for time.”) CSOs will encourage their members to use the cars, but have to tread a very fine rhetorical line to encourage “exploration” and “new experiences” rather than just driving more.

Put these together, and car sharing is a maturing service which will continue to grow. However, it’s not something that’s ever going to turn a huge profit.

On the other end of the spectrum, current investors, like the esteemed (at least, when he’s getting yelled at by Jon Stewart) Jim Cramer, also have things wrong. They argue against buying Zipcar shares because they fear big car rental agencies are going to push in to Zipcar’s turf and take over its business. If this was the case, it would have happened by now. But car rental agencies have a different business model, and they’re not about to change their stable, successful businesses to jump in to something new, and something which barely makes money.

In other words, Hertz is not about to move their airport-based fleet of rental cars in to the middle of the city and take over Zipcar’s business. Their business model is to buy new cars, drive them for 25,000 miles, park them in big lots at an airport, and sell them within a year. They operate with very low overhead, comparatively few locations, and, outside of airports, limited hours. Some have made feints in to the car sharing market from static locations with limited pick-up times and key boxes; these have been unsuccessful. The only money they put in to their cars are 25¢ key rings, so they can sell off capital at a moment’s notice. They don’t have to invest in parking spaces, signs and space leasing agreements. They play the car market, and, from time to time they rent them out.

The one opportunity for car rental agencies is that the demand for rental cars and shared cars is flipped. Rental cars see low use on weekends, shared cars see low use on weekdays. If Hertz could magically move half their fleet from the airport to the city every Friday and back on Sunday night, they’d have something going. This, however, would mean driving their cars at high revenue and high traffic times, from one central location to dispersed spaces in residential areas. They’d have to install car sharing hardware which would only be used a few days a week, disable and reenable it to meet the whims of the rental car market, and convince traditional renters to drive a moving billboard. The logistical and personnel cost to do this would negate any potential savings. 

There are also reverse opportunities for car sharing organizations: encouraging travelers to rent shared cars during the week—especially in cities with good transit links to airports. Imagine, for example, a business traveler going to the East Bay from SFO. She could get on the BART and ride it through San Francisco and under the Bay, avoid the usual traffic on the bridge and 101, and pick up a car in Berkeley from near a BART station. By the time a traveler bound for a location west of Boston was at the desk after a rental car shuttle trip at Logan, they could take the Silver Line to the Seaport, grab a Zipcar, and jump on the Pike. If anything, I think there’s more of a market for traditional car renters to use shared cars than the other way around, especially as business travelers become more likely to be city-adept car sharing members and less likely to own a car. (Plus, from an expense-reporting standpoint, it’s easier to expense one item, a rental car, than a rental car and gas purchases.) But for the most part I expect car sharing and car rental to remain separate business segments as this would only be feasible in markets with sizable car sharing markets, good airport transit and cross-city reciprocity (right now, only Zipcar).

So, car sharing will continue to be successful, but never wildly profitable. If shares were to fall far enough and Zipcar shows continued profitability, I could see it being a decent investment, but not one that would ever run up Apple- or Google-like returns. For now, I’m staying away.

Why can’t we internalize the cost of commuting?

Yesterday I was biking from Saint Paul to Minneapolis at rush hour. In to a stiff headwind, which shaved four or five miles per hour off my speed—more on downhills. However, when I crossed over Interstate 94 (*) just east of the Mississippi, I smiled. Both sides of the highway were parking lots. I probably wouldn’t have gone any faster in a car.

I hate traffic. Actually, I should rephrase that. I hate being stuck in traffic. I love the concept of traffic, as long as it is not “solved” by building more roads. Livable cities have traffic. (They have transit as well. The ones with traffic and no transit, well …) I continued on a few blocks to my destination and, while I was not particularly happy fighting against the gale, I was glad I wasn’t giving myself ulcers in a traffic jam.

There have been several recent articles about the fact that people are unable to properly calculate the cost—both economically, the time cost and the emotional distress—of a long commute. It’s been called the commuter’s paradox. The long and short of it comes down to the fact that people, when making an important decision (where to live) will worry about rare, very inconvenient occasions more than frequent and not-quite-so-inconvenient-but-still-bothersome occasions. In other words (mostly those of Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands):

Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. “People will think about this trade-off for a long time,” Dijksterhuis says. “And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad.” What’s interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They’ll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: “The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while.”

In addition to the environmental catastrophe of building and heating (or air conditioning) superfluous, unused rooms, people have convinced themselves that they need this extra space, and pay dearly for it: first when they buy something larger than necessary, and then when they spend hours a day in the car because they can’t get anywhere without turning the ignition key. (Has no one heard of a fold-out bed or a hotel room? It’s a lot cheaper than a bigger house.)

The article also goes in to the issue that the worst thing about traffic isn’t that it’s bad, but that it’s unpredictable. With all sorts of technological advancements, the best we can do now are sporadic signs above the Interstate telling us how long we have left in this particular hell. With a little money, we could make the trains and buses run on time (the worst thing about a poorly functioning transit system is, generally, its unpredictability). Making traffic predictable, on the other hand, is all but impossible.

There’s another piece up recently regarding a book about car dependence. It goes in to more of the economics, that we don’t internalize the costs of driving because they are so ingrained in the American psyche. It’s really a problem, and one that will take decades to fix. Whether the current economic status (and, yes, economics, not environmentalism, will be the driver of less automobile use) or higher gas prices will make a change is yet to be seen. However, it may be a generational change, and amongst a generation of always-plugged-in folks who see time in a car for what it is—almost completely wasted—we may see more people who are less interested in driving the latest, greatest shiny new automobile.

[ * Why is I-94 bad going west? Because in the course of about three miles there is a lane drop on the right (Riverside), a lane drop on the left (35W), two horrible merges on the right (from 35W and 11th), and then a sharp curve in to the Lowry Tunnel. There are no lanes which don’t disappear or have just brutal merges. You can add all the suburban lane miles you want, but it won’t address these bottlenecks.]

What happens when you halve parking?

Not when you have it. When you cut it in half. Minneapolis is not a city where finding a place to park is really a big deal. There are a few residential neighborhoods where you might not get a spot in front of your house—Uptown, Wedge, Whittier, and over by the University of Minnesota—but usually, even there, it’s not a huge deal to find a spot. In winter, there are snow emergencies, and everyone does a little dosey-do moving cars from one side of the street to another; then it’s back to normal.

Except, well, every once in a while. Starting on Thursday, there will be no more parking on the even side of the street. Until April, or whenever the snow melts. Apparently, Minneapolis has the authority to ban parking on one side of the street. Once fire trucks can’t get down the street because it’s too narrow (and they claim if they plowed all the way to the curb the sidewalks would be impassible), the regulations go up. The last time this happened was in 2001—nine years ago—and, well, it’s about to happen again.

So, what happens now? In much of Minneapolis, parking will go on as normal, just on one side of the street. But in the aforementioned perpetually parked-up neighborhoods, parking is going to be drastically decreased. It won’t be halved, exactly—snow emergency routes are exempt, so it’s only residential streets which are affected, and it doesn’t take in to account off-street parking—but in many areas there is going to be a significant decline in the availability of parking.

So, basically, Minneapolis is going to turn in to the parking equivalent of Boston, San Francisco or Chicago, pretty much overnight. It will be interesting to note several things. Will transit ridership go up—will it be worth a trip by bus if you don’t know if you’ll get a parking space when you get back? Will people start posting spaces on Craigslist for rent? Will some folks ditch their cars and make do with car sharing services? You better believe we’ll be watching.

Is bike sharing the “last mile” for car sharing?

A lot of hay is made about the “last mile” in public transport. Unless you live right at a bus stop or train station, your walk to the bus is going to be further than your walk to your car. (The term last mile derives from many other applications, such as communications and logistics, where the connections from end users to the main network are the least efficient, and thus most costly, to build and keep up. In transportation it relates to moving users from their origins and destinations to the nearest transit infrastructure.)

It’s an issue for car sharing, too. Even in the densest car sharing cities, many users live a few blocks away from the nearest shared car. (In these cities, of course, owning a car is generally very expensive and inconvenient, so the marginal gains from having a car right out your door are offset by the cost of a reserved spot or the time cost of circling the block looking for an unreserved one.) A car sharing network can be seen as similar to a transport network, with various access points spread across a region. With transport, the last mile is actually on both ends—getting from your origin to the network, and from the network to your destination—while with car sharing there is only an issue getting from your origin to the network as you then drive to your destination, so perhaps it’s more of a first mile issue. Still, it’s very similar—while there’s no hard research that I know of, anecdotal evidence is such that most car sharing users are willing to walk a quarter mile to a shared car, tolerant of maybe up to a half mile, but not very interested in going much further than that (similar to transit users).

Bike sharing may help to change that, by lengthening the distance people can travel to other modes. It fits in to a rather specific niche of the transportation network, for trips of between about 0.5 and 1.5 miles—trips that would be too short to bother with transit but too far to walk quickly. If bike share access is seamless and dependable—as is its goal—it can rather well fill this piece of the transport network. So before we look at how bike sharing and car sharing may interact, we should try to imagine where, exactly, bike sharing fits in.

In Europe, bike sharing has started up in the densest of cities—Paris (which is nearly as dense as Manhattan), Barcelona, Copenhagen—as well as many others. In North America, the first cities planning bike sharing systems are not necessarily the densest. Montreal, which is home to the successful Bixi system, is about as dense (11,000 persons per square mile) as Philly, although less-so than San Francisco (17,000) or Boston-Cambridge-Somerville (14,000). Boston is planning a system this year, as are considerably less-dense Minneapolis (7000) and Denver (4000), although, of course, the networks there will focus only on the densest portions of these cities. In a Paris, or even a Montreal or Boston, bike sharing will probably replace some trips made by transit or walking (or even short bike trips), but may not be as much of a driver of providing links to different modes, as transit is generally readily available. In the other cities, however, this may not hold true.

So there are basically two levels of cities implementing bike sharing. One is the dense city (>10,000 with a major fixed-guideway transit system and a large existing car sharing network: Boston, Montreal, Washington D.C., Paris, San Francisco …). The other is a less-dense city with a small fixed-guideway system and a fledgling car sharing system (Denver and Minneapolis, so far). Portland, which will likely join the bike sharing fray in the next couple of years, would fall in between, with its maturing transit system and a rather large car sharing market.

What bike sharing is best for are trips of a relatively finite distance, and it seems to vary based on the type of city (and which other transit modes are available). For trips significantly less than half a mile, you’d walk. The extra time it takes to get a bike and return it, even if there is a station right each end of a trip, is made up by the fact that by the time you got the bike, you’d be well on your way by foot. For trips longer than two miles, you’d likely want to ride your own bike (faster and more comfortable, but with a bit more overhead of storing a bike, carrying a lock and locking the bike) or ride transit (ditto, depending on the route), or use a shared vehicle. So bike sharing’s market is between about a third of a mile and a mile and a quarter (if you don’t mind locking your own bike) or a mile and a half (if you do)—perhaps a tad longer in cities without dense transit networks. Beyond that, biking, transit, a taxi or a car make sense.

So, how does it break down. Well, I made the following assumptions:

Denser city Less dense city
Mode MPH Overhead Mode MPH Overhead
Walk 3 0 Walk 3 0
Bike share 8 4 Bike share 8 4
Bike 12 7 Bike 12 7
Transit-slow 15 10 Transit-slow 15 12
Transit-fast 25 15 Car share+BS 20 
Car (Share) 20 10 Car (Share) 20 12
Taxi 20 6 Taxi 20 6
Trans-fast+BS 25  12  Transit+BS 15 10

MPH is, of course, miles per hour once using that mode. Overhead is the amount of time it takes at the beginning and end of the trip to get to the mode from the origin and from the mode to the destination. Walking has zero overhead. Bike share was estimated to have four minutes (a minute to the kiosk and a minute getting the bike on either end; this is probably a lowball estimate). Biking seven minutes: three minutes to get your bike out of storage, two minutes to lock it at the end, and two for incidentals (shoes, helmet). Transit-slow is for local routes, which are probably a shorter walk, transit-fast for faster routes (such as a subway) which are generally further away. Car share overhead is to walk to the car and unlock it, and adding Bike share (BS) to a mode can cut down on the walking time.

Bike share only makes sense in multi-modal situations in a few scenarios:

  1. In denser cities, to access faster transit. For longer trips, riding a shared bike a mile to a faster transit mode (say, a subway instead of a bus line) can allow most of the trip to be at a faster speed, and make the overall trip faster. Since most, if not all, transit stations served by bike sharing will have kiosks, this makes sense. In addition, it may allow users to travel to another transit line of the same level of service and eliminate a transfer, but, to keep things simple, these models don’t really look at transfers.
  2. In less dense cities, car sharing, which is quite dense in large cities, is a bit more diffuse. Thus, many potential car sharers might live more than half a mile from the nearest shared car. In Minneapolis, every HOURCAR in the initial service area will be within about 100 feet of a bike sharing kiosk, so dropping off the car is easy, and it may allow people a bit further away to access the vehicles. And bike sharing is much easier, here, than riding your own bike because you don’t have to bring a lock and lock it up (and worry about it)
  3. In less dense cities with less dense transit networks, it may make sense for some people to use bike share to access slower transit routes, especially if they live far from a route with frequent service, although in areas served by bike sharing, route networks are rather well established.

This perhaps, is best visualized by charts showing the time various trips take, based on the speed and overhead in the tables above.

The first chart is for denser cities, the second for less dense ones. For a given distance, the line nearest the bottom is the fastest mode. Cost is not taken in to account, but any orange or yellow line is a pay-per-use mode (taxi, car sharing) while any other line is a mode which is unlimited use, assuming most frequent transit and bike share users will have a monthly or yearly pass, so the marginal cost of each trip is zero. Dashed lines are variants of a mode with bike share added to the start or end of the trip to reduce overhead.

So in a dense city, where does bike sharing fit in to the picture? Well, assuming, for a minute, that we discount taxis (fast but expensive) and car sharing (expensive, fast, and not for short trips unless there is parking at the other end), bike sharing makes the most sense between about 1/3 miles and 1 mile if you have a bike of your own (or don’t mind locking said bike) and 1.5 miles if you would otherwise rely on transit. Considering that nearly half of trips are less than two miles from home, that’s a pretty big range—more tan a tad under half a mile and you’d walk, beyond two you’d take transit. However, bike sharing is generally only marginally faster than other options. Walking takes over for transit for trips much longer than 3/4 of a mile, so bike sharing will generally only ever save three to five minutes. So it better work well.

The other factor here is bike sharing and the faster transit network. What I mean by faster transit are generally grade-separated fixed-guideway modes (subway, proper light rail) but could also be express buses on highways. These lines are generally further apart than slower bus lines, so fewer people live within easy walking distance. In the chart above, for trips under three miles, it makes sense to take the bus (assuming it’s five minutes closer than the train), but if bike sharing can shave just a few minutes off the walk to the station, the train—which is more energy efficient and can more easily accommodate higher passenger loads—becomes a better option at distances of just over a mile—right about where bike sharing leaves off.

(Yes, it appears that bike sharing will actually make transit faster than driving at one point, but for very long distances, at least outside of rush hour, car sharing’s speed would be higher as drivers would access faster roads. This line should probably be curved (as should others) but that’s not really necessary for these simple simulations.)

In other words, imagine the following scenario: You live a block from a bus line, and the corner with the bus stop has a bike sharing kiosk. The bus line runs three miles to your office, or a store, or some such destination. You also live near a train station which has a line running to the same destination, but it’s a half mile walk from your house. Let’s assume that the bus and train have the same headways, that the bus runs at an average of 12 mph and the train at 25. Right now, your options are to walk to the corner, catch the bus, and ride 15 minutes to your destination; or walk ten minutes to the train, catch it and ride 7.2 minutes to your destination (17.2 total). With bike sharing, you can now ride at 8 mph 0.5 miles to the train (3.75 minutes), spend a minute at each end retrieving and returning the bike, and ride the 7.2 minutes, for a total of 12.95 minutes. So you save 2:03 versus the previous fastest mode time. It’s not a lot, but it’s a small advantage.

Of course, no transportation network is this cut and dry—but this is at least a way to imagine where bike sharing fits in. This summer, for instance, I wandered through Paris for a day with my family. We had two choices: the Metro or walking. Bike sharing was out because we didn’t have the proper credit card and my mother was scared of cycling through traffic without a helmet, and we didn’t know enough about the bus system to use it. (Taxis would have been an option, but they are expensive, slow—buses often have reserved lanes—and my family is cheap.) Had we had access to bike sharing, trips between half a mile and a mile and a half would have been easier and faster by Velib.

Now on to less dense cities. Here, the niche for bike sharing is similar, and maybe even larger, as we can assume that bus and transit service is a bit harder to come by. Bike sharing makes sense from about a third of a mile,  but this time is only exceeded by transit for trips greater than two miles. (This is due to the assumption that frequent bus routes are a bit less prevalent in these cities; living right near a good bus route would obviously change this equation.)

But it also shows the other advantages of bike sharing in these cities. First, bike sharing increases the utility of transit. It’s not a big difference, but with a more dispersed route network, we can assume that bike sharing allows a few more residents to live within “easy travel distance” of said routes. (Although this may be confounded by most bike sharing locations being near bus lines.) If this is the case, it makes transit faster than bike sharing around 1.5 miles—if a shared bike is used to access the bus.

Then there’s car sharing. While cities like Boston and Montreal have robust car sharing networks, Minneapolis and Denver don’t. In Boston, for example, there are entire neighborhoods where every resident is within a half mile—or often less—of not one but many shared cars. This just isn’t the case with Minneapolis and Denver. If bike sharing can be utilized heavily in these cities—and without as much competing transit there is a bit more of a market to seize—it could be the missing link to shared cars. These data assume that the time needed to access a shared car would drop from twelve minutes (±1/2 mile walking at 3 mph plus a minute to access the car) to seven (±1/2 mile biking at 8 mph, plus two minutes to get and return the bike, a minute to walk to the bike and a minute to access the car).

If there are bike share locations in locations other than car sharing locations (as is the plan, at least, in Minneapolis), they will allow people who may live a mile from a shared car to get to the car in eight or ten minutes (biking) instead of 20 or 25. This is the proverbial “last mile.” In less dense cities with higher car ownership, it is not always possible to support a shared car on every block. We’ll see if this becomes the case, but it is possible that a symbiosis will develop between the two shared transportation modes where bike sharing will allow a substantial increase in the reach of the car sharing networks in Denver and Minneapolis.

The fallacy of one-way car sharing

(This all began a few months ago, when a friend in Austin and I discussed a one-way rental scheme there. Months have passed, he’s moved, and one-way car sharing still isn’t open to the public in Austin. Or anywhere else in the hemisphere. And, outside a couple isolated cases, I’m not sure it will ever work. I distilled the argument, a bit, in a comment at the Transport Politic, and promised to flesh it out. Here’s my best attempt …)

One of the most frequently asked questions for those of us in the car sharing industry is “when are you going to have one-way rentals.” There’s no good answer. Yes, car sharing is a relatively young industry: Communauto is celebrating 15 years in Montreal, most other Car Sharing Organizations (CSOs) in the western hemisphere are 10 or younger. While the technological advances during that time have been rapid, from paper log books and lock boxes to iPhone reservations and remote unlocks, everyone has been vexed by one-way rentals. Supposedly some very smart people (at MIT IIRC) tried to build an algorithm to allow for one-way rentals, and it failed miserably. So, with one minor exception, if you take out a car sharing vehicle, you have to return it to the same space.

The one exception is with Car2Go (not to be confused with a similarly named CSO in Israel), which is “operating” in Ulm, Germany and Austin, Texas. Why Ulm and Austin? Well, Car2Go is backed by Daimler, and has a fleet of Smart Cars in each city. I know very little about the operation in Ulm (or the city itself) other than it is a small, dense, European city. As far as Austin, I know two things. First, the system there is not open to the public. Second, it seems to have backing from the municipal government and the University of Texas, at least as far as parking, which is why it might not fail. Might.

There are two ways to figure out why one-way rentals do not work for car sharing. One is to take a CSO, its members, vehicles, and a defined area, and try to create an model which takes in to account car usage, parking, times of day and fees per mile or minute to see if it, well, works. That is very complicated and, even if it proved successful (so far it has not) is still only a model. The second method, however, is to take a step back and look at some of the underlying factors which would create a workable one-way car share, and how these mesh with such a program. Doing this, it becomes quite clear that one-way car sharing will never really work, no matter how many GPS-enabled cell phones there are.

So, let’s take that step back. In North America, one-way rentals would seem to be based on cities with high density, i.e. cities where, once a car was parked, it would not be long before another driver needed it. We can use a very good proxy for this: cities which are existing major car sharing markets. These are, in the United States, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Portland and Seattle; and in Canada, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. (All have at least 300 shared cars on the road, except Portland and Seattle, which have about 200.)

What do all these cities have in common? They all have the soft factors which, in my opinion, are supportive of car sharing: the availability (or lack thereof) and cost of parking, the frequency, reliability and speed of a transit network, and the prevalence of urban congestion. (See this post about car sharing for a longer discussion of these three factors.)

Why won’t one-way car sharing work in these cities? One word: parking.

Imagine starting something like this in a city like Boston (a stand in for our dense car sharing cities because I am poaching most of the next few paragraphs off of an email I wrote a while back). No one would use it. The reason Zipcar is successful (as are other CSOs in other cities) is that when you return your car you are guaranteed a parking spot. If you are going from Cambridge to the South End, you take the T, because it is faster (or marginally slower) than driving, cheaper, less aggravating, and less likely to experience a traffic jam. (And if it is delayed you can walk—you’re not wedded to your car.) If time is of the essence, you take a taxi; as long as you aren’t going right there and back it’s probably cheaper than a shared car (you pay for when you use it, driving or not, so if you are going to a party, it’s cheaper to that the T there and a cab home). You use Zipcar for trips to the grocery store when you don’t want to haul groceries on the T, trips to Ikea &c., trips to the suburbs or places to which the T doesn’t run and to which a cab would be abhorrently expensive (anything within spitting distance of 128).

Now, imagine the one-way car sharing scenario. You pick up a car near your house in Cambridge, and drive to the South End. It works well because it is an easy trip. But there are two problems on two different scales. On a small scale, you get to the South End, and start looking for parking. Most likely, any time you saved driving you lose trying to find a space. Maybe a firm comes up with a way to send the location of spaces to your phone (I worked for one of these for a while, and it did not work out), but there is still a lot more demand than supply. So circling the block eats up any time savings you may have enjoyed. And there’s no way that this service, at $300+ per space per month, goes out and buys enough spaces around the city that you could always find one open and convenient. It might work if you dynamically base the price of the destination based on demand, but then high-demand locations will cost more than taxicabs.

Based on the density of cities like Boston alone, one-way car sharing would work. Except that it is impossible that the parking could be worked out. You’d almost necessarily have more parking spaces than cars, which is both an economic and social detriment: parking, especially empty, is antithetical to density and walkability. (Most CSOs have as many parking spaces as cars; some have fewer. If a CSO has 15 cars assigned to a lot and knows that 99.5% of the time no fewer than 2 cars will be checked out, and lower pricing for off hours can encourage this, they can buy fewer spaces than they have cars. At $300 a space, this is a nice thing to be able to do.)

The other problem is large scale, one of congestion. Imagine that you somehow solve the parking conundrum this takes off. Imagine that whenever you need a car, you can get one and drop it off wherever you need to, and pay a few dollars for its use. It would be great. Everyone would use it. And, there’s the problem. And all of the sudden, tens of thousands of people who used to be carried below grade on subway lines (and some buses) would be clogging the streets in their little two-seater cars. Even if they were in such eight-foot long vehicles, they’d take up a lot of space. In cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, adding a few percent to the already at-capacity roads throws the system in to gridlock. You’d pretty quickly lose whatever time advantage you had over mass transit, trips would be more expensive than transit (or, if they were short enough, still more expensive than walking), and it’s not pleasurable to sit in stopped traffic in a city.

Finally, cars will necessarily flow to certain places at certain times of day. From residential areas to office areas, from offices to restaurants to entertainment districts. If there are too many, you have to move them. But cars aren’t like shared bikes. You can’t send one buy out with a truck, load ten of them up in one location, and ship them off somewhere else. You need a driver for each, and that gets costly.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are less dense American cities, some of which do have shared cars on the street. I’m not speaking of universities which pay for a couple of shared cars, but cities with smaller shared car fleets on their streets, like Madison, Denver/Boulder, Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. We’ll use these are stand-ins for the less-dense American city, which may not have the aforementioned factors in place.

Here our stand-in will be Minneapolis and Saint Paul, because, uh, again, I can coöpt much of an existing email in to this post. In the Twin Cities parking is pretty easy. But for a scheme like this to work, you’d need so many cars in order for them to be within walking distance of enough people. (Add to that the fact that in the neighborhoods where it works best—Uptown, the University of Minnesota, the downtowns—parking is an issue.) So there are a few neighborhoods where it might work okay, they are not very well connected, and many people living there ride their bikes anyway. Andy pretty much every city I can think of falls in to this category.

In addition, cities such as the Twin Cities have many services which are only available in the suburbs. For instance, in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, there are REIs and Apple Stores easily accessible by transit. In the Twin Cities, they’re in the suburbs. So for a lot of trips, you have to drive somewhere, leave the car in a suburban parking lot, and need it to get back. One-way rentals don’t really apply here.

The only cities I can think of that might be able to solve the parking issues yet have dense enough areas to support many cars are mid-sized cities with huge, urban college camuses, decent transit and middling parking issues, and the right “clientele” for the service. Basically, Austin and Madison. The colleges can be strong-armed in to giving up enough parking to make it viable on the campus, and the geography might work out otherwise. (Of course, would this program be used by broke college students when free options like biking or walking abound?) It’s definitely a might; I’d still be surprised if it works.

You may notice I have not said a word about the logistics of the whole charade yet. I am rather well-qualified to speak to them, and it would scare the hell out of me. Basically, what happens when a car goes off to never-never land—a part of the city which might be in the city limits (or the sharing limits), but where no one really wants to drive from. Either it sits there generating no revenue until someone wants it, or you have to dispatch someone a folding bike to get it. Either way costs staff time and mileage.

What happens when someone parks it and leaves it in an underground garage with no GPS reception. You know, like Whole Foods (in Austin, which has underground parking)? (I assume they’ll have sensors there, which would be somewhere I’d assume a lot of the cars would wind up, but you’d have people walking up and down the aisles in the lot, or have the cars in a special parking space. Still, now you’ve spent a lot of money wiring every garage in the city for connectivity.) No one can find the car, you have to have someone call the previous user (and good luck reaching the jet-set type anymore, many of us don’t answer calls promptly), and try to find the car. CSOs know where our cars are—they are returned to their spots 99.9+ percent of the time.

Finally, take the following scenario: you live near the outskirts of the drop-off area and work eight miles away, also near the outskirts of the drop-off area. You pick up a car one day and park it at your house, where no one else is likely to use it. Then you wake up, drive it to work (you pay for what you drive, so 15 minutes costs you $3) and leave it at work, where, likely, no one will want to use it. At the end of the day, you drive it home, another $3, and leave it there. All of the sudden, you’ve paid $6 for a 16 mile round-trip commute, gas and insurance included. If someone else uses the car, you take a bus or bike in to town, pick up another one, and do it again. If this happens every couple of weeks, it’s a minor inconvenience,  and your total commuting costs might be $120 a month. It’s not a bad deal for you, but would bankrupt anyone trying to run the thing.

A couple more tidbits:

A lot of car sharers often make reservations in advance. Like, weeks in advance. Every Tuesday evening they drive to the grocery store, or their great aunt’s house, or the climbing gym. The car is where the car is and they know it will be there. With one-way rentals you don’t have any assurance a car will be where a car will be. Thus, you throw out the segment of the market which has reserved in advance. (Without throwing around any insider information, let’s say this market is below 50%, but still significant.) You could have a dual system, where some cars are round-trippers and some are one-ways, but then you have more overhead and member confusion (we’ve found that simplicity, in car sharing, is a virtue). And the logistics—people parking in the wrong spaces; people taking one-way cars on round trips, would be an administrative nightmare. Or, you could have a system robust enough that there’d almost always be a car where you wanted it. But I think I’ve given several reasons that such a system is unlikely. And you’d still need a system whereby people could take cars for longer trips and pay for the non-driving time in between to guarantee the car would be theirs.

Okay, so what about bike sharing? It works, right? Yes, but bikes are smaller than cars. A lot smaller. You can put fifteen bikes on a sidewalk without disrupting the traffic flow of pedestrians or vehicles. Try doing that with one car, let alone a dozen.

To sum up, a one-way car sharing system only works in an area well-served by transit. However, to get from one area served by transit to another, you don’t really need car sharing. Car sharing fills a specific niche where transit is too slow or inconvenient, taxicabs too expensive, and cycling too impractical. One-way car sharing would be like taxis without drivers. Except when taxis aren’t carrying a fare, they are doing one of three things: they are either parked in an out-of-the-way location, driving to find another fare, or idling (generally at a cab stand or high-traffic area) with a driver in the seat. Taxis never have to find parking. Take away the cabbie, and the system fails. As would, in my opinion, one-way car sharing.


Want to find a CSO near you?‘s list a pretty good list. If you are in the Twin Cities, HOURCAR is fantastic, although, full disclosure, I do work for them.

Soft factors that benefit car sharing

Since I work for a car sharing organization, people often ask me what makes a city or neighborhood ideal for car sharing. While certain factors are easily measurable or obvious (density, walkability, and mixed use development), others are a just as important but not as apparent. I’ve come up with three such “soft factors” (soft because they are not hard measurements which can be gleaned, say, from census data). These seem to be quite indicative of whether car sharing will thrive, and seem to be good for creating livable cities as well—as long as livability is not intertwined with car ownership.

They are the availability and cost of parking; the frequency, reliability and speed of a transit network; and the prevalence of urban congestion.

1. The cost and availability of parking. Owning a car is expensive. However, once you start paying for parking, you’re throwing money at little more than a 100-square-foot plot of ground for your car not to drive. Once this cost gets over about $100 a month, it contributes significantly to lower car ownership. Enmeshed with this factor is the availability of parking. It’s almost always possible to find street parking if you look hard enough. But if you have to circle a block six times, jockey your car in to a tiny spot, and/or move it every third day to the alternate side of the street, it makes car ownership more of a burden than a freedom.

Cities where car sharing thrives are not cities where it is easy to find a parking space. One of the major reasons car sharing took off in cities like Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco is that they were able to advertise that their cars always had “reserved parking,” a godsend for residents who had to deal with expensive private lots or arduous on-street spaces. All of the sudden, they could take a two hour car trip, get home, and not have to worry about how many blocks away the nearest spot would be. Or, if they gave up their private spot, they might find a couple grand in their pocket at the end of the year.

2. The frequency, reliability and speed of a public transit network. The three adjectives here generally go hand-in-hand-in-hand, with the exception of a minor explanation regarding speed. Speed is relative. Sure, antiquated subways in Boston, New York and Chicago may creep along through ancient tunnels or els, but compared with the gridlock above (or below)? Well, private right-of-ways do have their advantages. And are they reliable? Well, about as reliable as highways which, at any time, may devolve in to a traffic jam.

The most important piece of the transit puzzle seems to be frequency. Or to put it differently, “can you walk to the nearest bus line and get on a bus without knowing a schedule.” This generally means that most lines should have midday headways of 15 minutes or less. And while grade-separated, rail transit carries a large fraction of riders in many of these cities, reliability and frequency seem to be more important to car sharing than the exact mode. Seattle, for example, was until a few months ago a bus-only transit system (We’ll ignore the monorail and one-mile streetcar.) and the new light rail line doesn’t serve many high-car sharing neighborhoods. Still, most lines run every ten or fifteen minutes all day and in to the evening, and while they’re not particularly fast, they come pretty often.

Do a lot of car sharing users walk or bike? Yes. But if it’s raining, or cold, or they just want to make use of transit, the ability to walk to the corner and not have to wait 25 minutes reduces the need and desire to own a car. (Especially when it might take that long to find a parking space; see factor 1 above.)

3. The prevalence of urban congestion. This is probably the most confusing of the three factors, since I don’t mean congestion on freeways leading in to the city in the morning and out in the evening. What it refers to is the prevalence of random traffic jams and tie-ups. In other words, how often during non-peak periods (middays, evenings and weekends) is there horrible traffic for no apparent reason? How often do you get in your car and, because a lane has been blocked off or a light has malfunction or an inch of snow has fallen, a trip that should take ten minutes takes half an hour? How often do you sit and watch a light a quarter mile ahead and realize that there are 40 cars ahead of you and only two are making it through each cycle? And how often is there some event—a parade or a race or a visiting dignitary—which so screws up the traffic system that no one in their right mind would drive downtown?

In cities which support car sharing, everyone’s had the experience of sitting in traffic on a Saturday afternoon for, well, no apparent reason. Urban congestion is not just that there are too many cars on the road, but that they are dynamic urban environments which sometimes don’t mesh with the automobile. If one small protest or minor accident closes off a main street corner, it can cascade across the street network, creating gridlock at a time it’s not expected. Of course, as anyone driving in any of these cities knows, there’s no time when there’s never been traffic.

Are these the only three factors which contribute to a dynamic car sharing market (or, in other words, make owning a car so unpalatable that many people do without)? Of course not. Also important are population and employment density, walkability (which has to do with these factors) and, to a small extent, the availability of bicycle facilities, the cost of gas, planning ordinances, physical geography and the like. But, from what I’ve seen, these are some of the most important factors, and they not only create a city with good car sharing prospects, but one in which people actually want to live.