Does Car Sharing Fill Transportation Gaps for Seattle Drivers?

Seattle is in the mood to share when it comes to cars
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

For Carey Evenson, who shares one car with her husband, Car2Go has been a lifesaver on more than one occasion. But more than a year ago, the car-sharing service, which allows members to rent cars on demand using a per-minute pricing structure, took on an even more important role in her daily life. The Columbia City resident is an avid user of public transportation, such as light rail, which takes her to her job at public relations firm C+C in downtown Seattle. But in her last few months of pregnancy, walking the half-mile to the train station to and from her home was more than she could handle. So she enlisted Car2Go, becoming a member of the service and using an app to find the nearest available car.

Similarly, Belltown business owner and resident Jane Savard has used Car2Go when she’s needed a car to get to areas that she can’t reach on foot, such as Magnolia, and has made use of other modes of transportation such as Uber, bus or Zipcar (which travels distances outside of Car2Go zones). Thanks to the many available options, she no longer owns a car.

Savard’s and Evenson’s choices typify the multimodal way folks in dense and growing urban Seattle neighborhoods are getting around the city. While that often requires a car, it increasingly means not owning one. For those who’d rather skip the expense and maintenance of owning a vehicle, car sharing—in which people pay a membership fee to gain access to vehicles, then drop them off for the next person—fills gaps in public transportation. It can also be cheaper than taxi services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

Seattleites have embraced Car2Go’s free-floating model. Why? It’s easy and flexible: Drivers can park the car in any parking space, and can use a phone app to locate the car nearest to them when they need one. More than 70,000 Seattle residents are Car2Go members, according to company spokesperson Dacyl Armendariz. That’s currently the car service’s largest membership base in the country.

The city has been paying attention. In January, the Seattle City Council passed legislation to expand car-sharing services, allowing room for as many as three additional companies to set up shop, and extending the number of permits that each service can be issued for cars from 500 to 750. As a result, Car2Go, which was introduced to the city in late 2012, added cars and expanded its reach, from downtown and South Lake Union to all of Seattle.

Car2Go isn’t the first car-sharing service in Seattle. Zipcar (formerly Flexcar, founded in 2000) was the city’s pioneering option. That company’s model is similar to a traditional car rental, with a membership fee that offers drivers varying hours of drive time. Zipcar contracts with businesses to secure parking spaces in their private lots, where users pick up and drop off cars.

Seattle’s size makes it a model city for car sharing, according to Sharon Feigon, executive director of Shared Use Mobility Center, which consults on shared mobility such as with cars and bikes. “Car2Go has done well in midsized cities and even some smaller cities,” Feigon says.

The fact that car sharing is becoming more and more popular in Seattle, she says, shows that Seattle’s multimodal transportation system, which includes biking, buses, trains and taxi services, along with car sharing, is moving in the right direction. “I don’t think it would be very successful without good transit,” says Feigon.

Car2Go and similar car-sharing models that use a per-minute charge make it ideal for shorter trips that might also include use of a train, bus, bike or walking, she says. “People can use it more as [a] first-mile and last-mile solution to the train or the bus hub. It creates a different kind of flexibility.”

Car sharing has an environmental benefit as well, says Feigon. It increases the use of biking, walking and transit, with each car share taking an average of 11 cars off the road, she says, adding that people sell cars and postpone decisions to buy them when reliable car sharing is available. “The biggest predictor of how much you drive is whether you own the car. If you have a car, you’re going to use it for a lot of trips you wouldn’t otherwise.”

An increased citywide reliance on services such as Car2Go has a downside, however: cost. Car2Go runs $0.41 per minute with a $35 membership sign up fee (hourly and day rates are also available); Zipcar costs $10–$50 a month, plus $7.20–$8 per hour.

Other car-sharing models have cropped up that offer additional options at a wider variety of price points. San Francisco-based RelayRides is a peer-to-peer service in which people rent out their personal cars (a glance at available cars in Seattle has prices from $27 and up, compared to the $84.99 day rate of a Car2Go and Zipcar’s variable rates) and is available nationwide, including in Seattle. Users find a nearby car via an app in much the same way they would look for a Car2Go vehicle.

More options can only be better, says Feigon, but those alternatives will function more smoothly when treated as part of one big transportation network. “A city needs to be proactive and decide what it wants,” she says. That includes making sure that transportation choices don’t exclude low-income residents. In California, the Air Resources Board asked for proposals on facilitating the growth of all-electric car sharing in poorer neighborhoods. King County Metro is tackling low-income transportation from a different angle, with the Orca Lift reduced fare program, which cuts bus fares to $1.50, less than half the peak commuter fare (it also applies to Sound Transit fares). It’s one of the few such programs in the country.

Feigon also suggests that there are other ways for cities to get users on board with multimodal transportation choices. One option is to create one payment or membership card, fob or key that works for multiple commuter options, rather than the current scenario of, for example, needing an Orca card to pay for the bus or train, your phone or membership card to unlock a Car2Go car and a Pronto key or pass to unlock a shared bike. Another is providing ways for people to see all of their transportation options at once via an app or a website.

“If the goal is reducing the total number of cars on the road,” says Feigon, “the more options people have, the more comfortable they’ll be.”

Carey Evenson feels that every little bit helps. “I’m all for getting more people around the city without having us driving alone in our cars,” she says. “Car2Go has the potential to make the leap to something that can be a reliable, convenient mode of transportation for more and more people as our region grows.”