City Paper Suggestion Edit

Original article from 1/5/2006.

Pittsburgh Needs a Car ShareEdit


We do it with airplanes. We do it with fancy restaurants, condos at vacation getaways, and movie theaters. With pretty much any expensive amenity, we forego personal ownership and pay only when we use it.

Any amenity, that is, except for owner-occupied automobiles. Most households that can afford it have one, two, three of these babies. Many of these autos spend most of their lives rusting away in driveways, gobbling loan payments and insurance premiums.

But there are alternatives. In a growing number of cities, the forward-thinking, the profit-minded and hybrids of the two are launching “car-shares”: time-shares for automobiles.

Here’s how it works: Members pay a modest membership fee (say $50 annually) for access to a strategically dispersed fleet of vehicles, which can be reserved by phone or Internet. Driving the vehicle costs by the hour (usually $4.50-10), and some car-shares require that drivers pay for mileage. But that fee and the membership dues cover all fuel, insurance, maintenance and other routine expenses.

Most car-shares focus on hybrids and other late-model, fuel-efficient cars. The result is fewer cars on the road and in parking lots, fewer emissions, and more household budgets relieved of the care and feeding of another hungry crankcase.

Car-shares have been running for two decades in Europe, where there are an estimated 250,000 members. The first car-share in the U.S. was CarSharing Portland, in 1998. Today there are 17 U.S. car-shares operating in about two-dozen cities -- including Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Most of the estimated 100,000 U.S. car-share members belong to for-profit entities, including burgeoning chains Flexcar, based in Seattle, and Zipcar of Cambridge, Mass. But most U.S. car-share organizations are nonprofits, including PhillyCarShare, which was launched three years ago with $23,000 in startup funds, two Toyotas (a Prius and a Matrix) and lots of volunteer work. Today PhillyCarShare has 2,500 members and a fleet of 50 vehicles that includes station wagons and pickups.

“We’ve seen people give up their cars at a remarkable rate,” says PhillyCarShare Executive Director Tanya Seaman. PhillyCar claims that each of its vehicles removes 23 private conveyances either sold or not purchased, and that members save $4,000 a year.

Such numbers vary widely by city, says Susan Shaheen of the University of California, who’s tracked car-sharing since 1998. Some North American car-shares, for instance, claim each vehicle removes as few as six from circulation. And proponents acknowledge that car-shares are not for everyone: Ideal cities for members are high-density and have good public transit, while members don’t drive to work or more than 10,000 miles a year, and would like to shed a second or third vehicle. But car-shares can also work for government -- Philadelphia is saving $9 million over five years by using PhillyCars in lieu of part of its municipal fleet -- as well as businesses, college students and people who couldn’t otherwise afford vehicles at all.

If car-sharers merely substitute borrowed wheels for their own, how does it help the environment? For one thing, even if the total mileage driven remained the same, better that it be covered by a car-share hybrid than a personal beater. Secondly, members actually do drive less: On average, according to a recent survey co-written by Shaheen, there’s a 44 percent drop in miles driven for each North American car-share driver. Car-share members, forced to consider a per-trip user fee (as opposed to hopping into a car already dearly paid for), find other ways to get around.

On the Web site of Zipcar, which claims 50,000 members, a “coming soon” banner lists 13 cities, including Pittsburgh. But, says a Zipcar spokesperson, “nothing’s finalized” -- meaning don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is exploring the feasibility of car-sharing in Pittsburgh, says the group’s director of transportation, Kathy Stefani.

We wouldn’t be the first Rust Belt town to share cars: Look to Cleveland, where EcoCity Cleveland is funding CityWheels, scheduled to launch this February with two cars stationed on the campus of project partner Oberlin College. CityWheels President Ryan McKenzie is busy talking to community groups, apartment-building managers, law firms, representatives of new housing developments -- anyone who might form a customer base big enough to support the fleet of up to 20 vehicles he hopes to oversee by this time next year.

McKenzie has a head start: CityWheels, though not yet on the road, already has six paid members.

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