CityWheels carsharing program offers alternative to car ownership

"You must learn to share." I always hated that line.  I had two brothers and a sister so I got my fair share of that parental pronouncement. But I grew up (my wife's opinion not withstanding), and now I'm fortunate enough to be able to afford my own stuff. I LIKE not sharing. Especially my car. So when I first heard about the concept of "car-sharing", I was less than enthused, but decided to learn more. To do that, I recently sat down with Ryan McKenzie, owner of a local car-sharing program called CityWheels. Ryan quickly led me to see the error of my possessive private car ways.

What a Concept
Instead of using an alternative fuel vehicle, how about using the vehicle in an alternative manner? Carsharing means stepping out of the car ownership game. Scary concept, huh? What do you give up as a car-sharing aficionado? Parking fees, insurance costs, depreciation, big monthly car payments, and stiff repair bills that come when you can ill afford them. Face it. Many times a car is more of a liability than an asset. What do you retain if you're a car-sharing program member? The convenience of private transportation. Joining a car-sharing program allows you to live a "car-free" lifestyle on those days you don't need a car. On those days you do, one is at your disposal. You get the best of both worlds: the mobility of a private car without all the fixed expenses and headaches that accrue if you own the vehicle. Carsharing is a special kind of rental car program that offers unique benefits the big rental car companies can't match.

Read the rest of the story after the jump.

How It Works
Here's how it works. CityWheels purchases vehicles for use by its members. Members pay a small monthly membership fee plus a nominal usage fee for each hour they use a CityWheels vehicle. Vehicles are scattered strategically throughout a target market area. Members book a vehicle over the internet, then at the appointed hour, simply walk up to the vehicle and press an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) membership card against a reader in the window of the vehicle and faster than you can say "Hertz-Avis-Budget-Enterprise", the car unlocks itself. The ignition key is already in the steering column. A kill switch is active until a membership card is recognized, so there's no worry about a break-in.

There are several advantages over a traditional car rental company. No endless "Please initial here, here, there, and down here". No "How about our insurance for $20 a day?" Car-sharing programs usually allows drivers as young as 21 to use the vehicles whereas many rental car companies require customers to be 25 year old or older. You can "rent" by the hour instead of by the day and you can also grab a car anytime. Perhaps best of all, there is no requirement to gas up before you return the vehicle. Gas, insurance, vehicle depreciation and repair are covered by City Wheels. Like a good spaghetti sauce, it's all in there in the car-sharing recipe. Slick-a-roo. Each car has GPS tracking so Ryan and his minions at CityWheels headquarters, like battlefield commanders, can track the movements of the troops on a computer screen. Remind me to tell you later how this feature came in handy for a car-sharing program in another Midwestern city.

Who's a Candidate?
Carsharing is not everyone, but it's perfect for anyone who lives an urban, low-mileage lifestyle. It's a great fit for a city-dweller who is happy to walk, bike, or use mass transit most of the time, but needs a car once a week for something special. Anyone who drives less than 7,500 miles a year is a candidate for replacing his or her car with membership in a Carsharing program. Anyone who likes the security of owning a second car, but would rather avoid the hassle of the two-car ownership experience. Why be stuck with an extra monthly parking fee, insurance, car payments, repairs and fuel bills if you don't have to be? Even William Clay Ford, Jr. said in 2000 that.  'If you live in a city, you don't need to own a car.'

From Europe to North America
Car-sharing programs got their start in Europe about 20 years ago. One began in Switzerland 1987 and another in Germany in 1988. This was pre-internet so the scheduling and coordinating were more of a challenge. Despite initial growing pains, the concept caught on. Switzerland's program has about 30,000 members who have access to hundreds of vehicles located in dozens of cities and towns. Carsharing came to North America about 10 years ago when it took root in Canada. As of December 2005, there are 17 car-sharing programs in the U.S. These programs service 92,000 members with approximately 1,800 vehicles. Cities close to Cleveland with car sharing programs include Detroit, Fort Wayne, and Chicago. For information about a car-sharing program in your area try

Location, Location
Ryan started CityWheels with four vehicles, two Toyota Prius hybrids and two Scion Xbs (the ones that look like a lunch box on wheels). One vehicle is located near downtown Cleveland in a residential neighborhood. One is located in an inner ring suburb close to Case Western University. Two are located near Oberlin College, about 35 miles West of Cleveland. "We are delighted that CityWheels will be coming to Oberlin," says Oberlin College President Nancy Dye. "Part of the college's sustainability program is to find ways to show students that they don't need to have their own cars. This program takes an important step toward greening our campus and community." Ryan is big on what he calls "walkable neighborhoods". Ryan said one CityWheels member (I think it's considered bad form to call them "customers") is a young musician living in Oberlin with a paying job playing for Sunday services at a church in Cleveland. Not owning his own car and being the environmental type as well as the musical type, he's singing praises of being able to get to his gig in an environmentally sensitive Prius hybrid. Good for the budget and good for the soul in his view!

Growing Pains
CityWheels has grown to 50 members since opening for business in February 2006.  Ryan aspires to add vehicles and locations as the budget allows.  "The most gratifying aspect of starting this company has been the satisfaction of seeing immediate results and making an impact on the quality of life in the community," he said. Ryan spent 10 years working for a non-profit organization promoting "non-motorized" transportation. For us outsiders, that means walking, biking, and using mass transit. Ryan lived car-free for 8 years in his Cleveland neighborhood. He is proud of his role in producing a conference in Atlanta in early 2001 that was the first car-sharing conference in the United States. "I started communicating with colleagues in other cities who had car-sharing programs," he said. "We were using email 'list serves' in those days. I tried to get one of the companies interested in bringing car-sharing to Cleveland, but I ran out of patience and just decided to do it myself." Ryan has learned a few lessons along the way. He wishes he had more marketing and fundraising skills. "I started the business with about two months of expenses in the bank.  In retrospect, I probably should have had about six months worth set aside".  CityWheels hit some chuckholes during the first few months due to hardware and software not meshing smoothly. The sophisticated electronics behind the card readers and GPS position sensing are from two different companies. Even though Ryan knew he was going to be a guinea pig because the products had not worked with each other in the field before, he didn't realize how much of a beta tester he was going to be. "Remember that the software is from a company in Toronto and the hardware from a company in Montreal. Besides having to make an international call every time I need technical support, there's the language barrier - English is a second language to the French-speaking technicians. Even though they do their best, it can get difficult to communicate and get the problems resolved".

GPS to the Rescue
Remember that GPS tracking feature I mentioned earlier. I did promise to tell you about what happened in another city (that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent until proven guilty).  Seems a hapless (or maybe clueless) car-sharing member decided to, shall we say, extend his stint behind the wheel and go for a Sunday drive far out of his car-sharing neighborhood. The car and driver ended up at Cedar Point, a popular amusement park near Toledo, Ohio. Guess he forgot about the GPS. The car and driver were later located just like the software geeks intended and the car was recovered. No one told me about what happened to the driver, but I'm guessing it's a safe bet they revoked his car-sharing card.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Car Sharing
After speaking with Ryan, I've come to see the benefits of Carsharing. To me, they are:

• Geared for a couple of hours of car use at a time; no 1-day minimum
• Self-service and spontaneous usage
• Gas, insurance, depreciation, repairs included in membership; no surprises
• Avoid garage fees, parking fees
• Could allow you to avoid the purchase of a second car for household

Here are the drawbacks of Carsharing:
• Have to get to the vehicle; it doesn't come to you
• Monthly fee regardless of vehicle use (although it's only $4.99/mo. At CityWheels)
• If you use the vehicles too much (i.e. for days at a time) it's costly
• Vehicle may not be available when you need it

Am I ready for the alternative car style of Carsharing? Unfortunately, no. I drive about 25K miles a year shuttling around the countryside. Would I recommend it to anyone who lives in the city and wants out of a lifetime of car payments? You betcha. But, honestly, I wish I did fit the car-sharing profile. There's so much more junk I could fit into my garage if I didn't have that darn car taking up all the room.

Share This Photo X