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Car-sharing works in San Francisco, but Sacramento has yet to get a similar project on the road

Yuka Mizutani, a UC Berkeley student, uses a City CarShare vehicle to do her grocery shopping.

Yuka Mizutani, a UC Berkeley student, uses a City CarShare vehicle to do her grocery shopping.

Photo By Rikki Ward

If City CarShare members had their way, cars would be less like members of the family and more like any other tool in the garage—used only when needed. People would avoid buying cars, or sell the ones they own, and drive less, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Parking lots featuring a couple shared cars would become permanent fixtures in neighborhood landscapes.

About 20 cities throughout the United States, including Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, have car-share programs in place. Sacramento is not one of them.

“I honestly don’t know [why],” said Susan Shaheen, a research scientist who studies car-sharing at the UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies.

Eighteen nations on four continents have implemented car-share programs since 1987, when the first one surfaced in Switzerland. Across the United States, almost 135,000 people car-share in more than 3,600 vehicles. The San Francisco-based nonprofit City CarShare has 7,000 members and 200 cars available at 100 locations in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and El Cerrito. Stations with one or two cars, known as “pods,” are placed strategically near BART stations, business districts or government buildings.

For-profit national operators, including Zipcar, PhillyCarShare and Flexcar, also continue to spread through cities, a few university campuses and even some small towns.

Specifics vary but the general car-share process remains the same: Members reserve a car online or by calling a toll-free number. They walk or take transit to pick up a car at a designated lot using an electronic key card, then drive where they need to go and return the car to the lot afterward. Members typically are charged on a per-use, per-mileage basis. City CarShare, for instance, charges $4 an hour during peak hours (evenings and weekends), $2 an hour off-peak and 44 cents a mile.

In the early days of car-sharing, several programs stalled, Shaheen said, as people infatuated with the concept met with the reality of its implementation. Programs failed largely, she said, because operators did not accurately gauge start-up costs, which include leasing or purchasing vehicles and paying high costs for insurance. According to Anita Daley, City CarShare’s membership-development and outreach director, a potential operator must also pay for parking, car maintenance, repair and cleaning, fuel, staff, marketing, technology and rent on office space.

In mid-2001, the executive directors of several local transportation management associations started discussing Sacramento’s car-share options with SMUD. The group recruited other local agencies, and the idea morphed into a broad-based, 18-month effort to set up a car-share program in the downtown area.

The group even issued a request for proposals to invite bids from multiple car-share operators. They received several “good responses” by September of 2002, said Dwight MacCurdy of SMUD’s energy-efficiency program. But when it came time for local agencies to choose a provider, the group paused to take a look in the mirror. Who’d be willing to put up the money?

“Basically, no one raised their hands,” MacCurdy said.

Those involved had legitimate concerns, he added. Implementing a car-share program involves a steep learning curve. Viability depends on whether a city has a high enough population density to provide a readymade customer base. A city needs a balance of businesses, residents and an accessible transit system in which a car-share program can be easily integrated. Cities should also be pedestrian-friendly and have low levels of car ownership, according to a guidebook distributed by City CarShare.

Based on a 2002 report by a researcher with the UC Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies, Sacramento did not have all of these elements firmly in place—the main obstacle being downtown Sacramento’s relatively low population density.

And, of course, the nail in the coffin was the substantial startup costs. According to the UCB report, pre-launch costs for a Sacramento program—including vehicles and feasibility and technology studies—was $375,000. The researcher estimated that annual overhead costs would equal $200,000 for a program with at least 40 vehicles. Additionally, keeping 10 cars on the road would cost about $91,000 annually.

“There was just enough uncertainty. Everyone said there are a lot of challenges here, and are we ready to take it and roll?” MacCurdy said.

Around that time, Caltrans began funding alternative strategies for dealing with traffic congestion, MacCurdy said. During annual budget hearings, every group seeking funding made a presentation to the board. The groups that got funding, MacCurdy said, were the ones with “heavy hitters,” like Assembly members lobbying on their behalf.

“We did not have a champion at that level,” MacCurdy said. “That’s probably when things lost steam.”

Ultimately, the effort dissolved after the group failed to get Caltrans funding.

But a program may work now, said Marilyn Bryant, executive director of the Sacramento TMA. People are more concerned with global warming, the cost of gas has gone way up and there is better technology to accommodate car-sharing, she said. “Things have changed a lot.”

But Sacramento still needs the same things it needed five years ago: political will, money and population density.

At least interest seems to be percolating once again. According to Daley, City CarShare received several calls a few months ago from people in Sacramento asking for guidance on launching a program.

Bryant and MacCurdy both emphasized that a local transportation entity should lead the way. “It takes a little bit of risk,” MacCurdy said. “You have to take the bull by the horn and run with it.”