America embraces car sharing

Car sharing is becoming more and more popular in US cities. Whether its domestic providers such as Zipcar or foreign ones like Daimler’s Car2Go – growth numbers are skyrocketing. Cities are now helping car-sharing services by allocating them public parking spaces, reports John Dyer in Boston.

City officials are helping car-sharing companies become more popular across the US by allocating them public parking spaces. (Photo credit: Christopher Schmidt, flickr)

City officials are helping car-sharing companies become more popular across the US by allocating them public parking spaces. (Photo credit: Christopher Schmidt, flickr)

Car sharing is taking the United States by storm. In Boston, city officials have allocated public parking spaces to car-sharing services ZipCar and Enterprise. In New York City, Car2Go is expanding its service area. And San Diego is granting contracts to two new car-sharing companies based on the success of Car2Go in that southern California city.

New openness

Piqued interest in car sharing — where customers drive cars themselves for short-term trips versus renting a vehicle for longer periods, hailing a taxi or hiring an Uber driver online — reflect a new openness to use technology to allocate resources to reduce traffic and other urban problems.

“Car sharing supports a wide range of regional goals by reducing reliance on private automobiles, relieving traffic congestion and reducing parking demand and greenhouse gas emissions,” said senior transportation planner Antoinette Meier of the San Diego Association of Governments.

While figures on car-sharing services don’t exist, they are popping up in nearly every major American city, from local companies like HourCar in Minneapolis to nationwide firms like Boston-based ZipCar and Car2Go.

“A lot of people still want to drive a car, but without the hassle of ownership,” said Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst with the Connecticut based Gartner research firm. “There’s a lot of competition to redefine mobility, and there aren’t clear winners yet.”

Car2Go dominates New York

In New York City, Car2Go appears to be dominating among car-sharing services. Created by German auto giant Daimler, with American headquarters in Austin, Texas, the company launched in Brooklyn in October. In late August, it expanded into Queens, providing a new option for people who want to travel north and south between the two New York boroughs.

Only one of New York’s subway lines — the notoriously substandard G train — links Brooklyn and Queens. Most subways run east-west between the outer boroughs and Manhattan. Buses in New York are usually slow and lumbering.

“I have friends who live in Astoria, I don’t see because it’s hard to get there,” said James Bednark, a television producer who has used Car2Go to travel 21 kilometres to Astoria, Queens from his neighborhood Prospect Park South in Brooklyn.

Since beginning in the German city of Ulm in 2008, Car2Go has expanded to 29 European and North American cities, including 11 in the US. It’s very popular in Brooklyn.

“Our ultimate goal is to be in all five boroughs,” said Car2Go North American CEO Paul DeLong. “We’re nine months in, and we see the adoption. We want to continue that snowball.”

Parking problems

But Car2Go has also run into problems in New York that reflect the perils of car sharing. Its 550 tiny smart cars have accumulated almost USD 263,000 in parking tickets this year, according to city statistics. Malfunctions in systems that let Car2Go crews move cars out of illegal spaces as well as drivers parking in bad spots led to the tickets, said Tom McNeil, Car2Go’s general manager in New York.

New York officials are considering designating spots in neighborhoods for rental cars, though some experts warned that setting aside spaces for the firms could be controversial.

“There are a lot of constituencies that want a piece of the curb,” said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association, a quasi-public group.

Late last month, the city of Boston allowed ZipCar and Missouri-based Enterprise Rental to pay for 40 public parking spots apiece as part of a year-and-a-half-long pilot program. The proposal, first floated last year, included many meetings of public input. The programme appears to be working.

Now, Zipcar is asking the city for free-floating spots, or a number of cars that could park anywhere and not receive tickets in exchange for gross annual fee to the city. Currently, unlike Car2Go, Zipcar customers must always drop their cars off at designated spaces, usually private lots that Zipcar has rented.

“We’re still working out the details of how that would work,” said Boston transportation commissioner Gina Fiandaca, referring to the free-floating plan. “Our plan at this point is to roll out the dedicated spaces first, while we continue to work with them.”


Photo credit: Christopher Schmidt, flickr/Creative Commons

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