Don’t Over-React to Saint Paul’s car2go Shrinkage

There’s a hearing today at Saint Paul City Hall about popular car sharing company car2go’s plans to shrink its service area, cutting out cars in large parts of the city, including the richest and poorest parts of town.

(Note: I’ve never used the service, but it also eliminates service where I live.)

It’s tempting to over-react to the service cuts, particularly if you live in (or represent) one of the affected areas. But I think we shouldn’t insist on an all-or-nothing approach to car sharing in the Twin Cities. We should demand some basic social equity, but the beauty of car2go lies in its flexibility. Much like bike sharing, car2go is a very specific tool that reflects its built environment.  If we want more car sharing, we have to “earn it” by building car-lite urban design.

Here are a few key things to remember about how car2go works and doesn’t work.

[The proposed shrinkage.]

car2go is flexible but tricky to balance 

[car2go usage in Minneapolis, 2014.]
I haven’t seen the car2go data beyond what’s in their quarterly report (and only for Minneapolis). I don’t know their business model, but if it’s anything like Nice Ride’s, there’s a trade-off between coverage area and usage. Dense parts of the city (downtown, uptown, etc.) are going to have high usage, and less dense parts of the city (everywhere else) are going to have low usage. Sometimes, very low usage.

That makes it tricky to plan car sharing, because one of the main costs is “rebalancing.” The genius of car2go’s business model is that, if done right, it requires no costs at all. In theory, because anyone can drive any car at any time, they could simply circulate all by themselves like fish in a pond.

But in real world Twin Cities, if someone parks a car out at an edge, it’s probably going to sit there for a long time before someone else comes along to use it. And the business model (which I haven’t seen, by the way) depends on circulation. A car that’s moving is making money, one that’s parked is not. So the company (most likely) has to spend a lot of time “rebalancing” the cars from edges into centers, back into the high circulation parts of the city.

Where you draw that line reveals the trade-off between geographic and economic equity.

Not a silver bullet for going car-lite

[Bike + Nice Ride + bus pass + car2go app.]
The other key thing to remember is that people don’t replace their cars with car2go on a one-to-one basis. Instead, people replace their (second or only) cars with a suite of affordable options, most especially bicycling, walking, and transit. Car sharing, taxis, or Uber (the most expensive private car alternatives) are more of a safety net for the cheap options. For those without cars, you take a car2go when you have to go somewhere out of the ordinary, at inconvenient times, or if the weather is uncooperative.

But that car share safety net is hugely important. For many of my friends, car2go plays a big part in their ability to live car-free. There are lots of stories.

But because it’s not a one-to-one replacement, you need to rely on places in the city that offer the other alternatives. Car2go only makes sense in places with good transit, mixed-use density, and bike infrastructure. So, that’s pretty much where you see the new lines drawn.

That’s why the proposed Saint Paul map is so interesting. Unlike many of the city’s more economically driven “coverage area” limits, this map eliminates Highland Park but keeps Frogtown. And it makes sense given that the Green Line area is where the quality transit is located, if not the money.

(Maybe if Saint Paul builds the Riverview line through a new dense development at the Ford site, the coverage will expand back into the Southwest of the city.)

A flexible parking solution

[A "car2go Yahtzee" =  five-in-a-row; this one in downtown Minneapolis.]
The other big benefit of car2go is that it offers a flexible solution to consistent parking complaints. At no cost (other than the “opportunity cost of another car being parked in a spot”), car2go provides an alternative to the private car that is especially useful in places where parking costs money. In other words, if you’re spending $5 to park downtown anyway, that’s half of the cost of a car2go trip. Market-driven parking policy makes car sharing (or other car alternatives) much more sensible.

The Grand Avenue example springs to mind. If the city had gone forward with parking meters on Grand Avenue, I’d be willing to bet that car2go might be more willing to expand service in Saint Paul. The tiny cars (two of which can fit into one parking space) make perfect sense for places with meters. They make a bit less sense when you have to drive around (paying by the minute) to find a free spot.

Plus, providing free parking is often expensive for cities. Right now, Saint Paul is debating spending millions on expanding parking lots in Como Park, and contemplating how many parking ramps its going to need at the (aforementioned) Ford site and the new soccer stadium at Snelling and University. Parking ramps cost millions of dollars, last for decades, and are all but impossible to retrofit for different uses. Every parking ramp we build “locks” the city into the private-car transportation model for another generation.

On the other hand, as this proposal shows, car2go can be changed almost instantly. Every time a car2go “turns over” when its used for another trip, that’s a couple of parking spaces that we don’t have to build. And every parking ramp we don’t build gives the city a generation of fiscal and architectural flexibility. Twenty years ago, according to some trends or predictions, many of today’s parking ramps and lots might not be needed, and it’s really nice to be able to roll with the cultural preference punches. The more we have car2go, or other car sharing options, the better for the long term.

Data would be nice, some shrinkage is natural

To continue with the inappropriate metaphor, some shrinkage is natural. Saint Paul and Minneapolis are just getting out of the “cold water” of incessant parking subsidies. As George Costanza illustrates in the Hamptons episode, explaining shrinkage is difficult. “It just does… like a frightened turtle.” 

My one complaint about car2go is that they keep most of their data proprietary. Unlike Nice Ride, which offers as much data as they possibly can (without promoting stalking), car2go is a private company that is worried about competition.  How and when and where they rebalance is something they’d like to keep to themselves, and so they do.

It’d be nice to be able to see exactly where the cars2go go (“cars2went”?), and I’d like to see cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis push for reports about which places have the most trips, where these trips are clustered, etc., to help guide development. The more that decision makers can see the specifics of the relationship between transportation and land use, on the local scale, the more easily folks can make convincing arguments about development or design decisions.

That said, I really like Council Member Amy Brendmoen’s response to the car2go announcement, posted on her Facebook site earlier this week. (Note: Service was cut in all of Brendmoen's ward.)  She writes:

[...] After lots of thought I am supportive of this shrink down because I want to keep them here. If you look at the modest list of the cities that they serve (such as Copenhagen, Seattle, Austin, Frankfort, Rome, Miami) its pretty clear that Saint Paul is not even close to a large enough city for car2go to naturally be in the market. We don't have the density or transit infrastructure of any of those cities.
 I for one really liked getting off a plane in Austin and finding that my little Saint Paul Car2Go membership works in other major cities. Adds to our cool factor. I think if we get too prescriptive we will lose out to Minneapolis and have nothing. So, long way of saying I am supportive of this change, as disappointed as I am.
AND if we (we meaning all saint paul residents) want them to stay here, we have to use the cars and talk to people about how to use them. They have greatly reduced their rates to spur activity and they need to know we want them here. Actions speak loudly.

There’s a public hearing on accepting the new car2go limits in Saint Paul this afternoon. If you live in the city, or even in Minneapolis (and use car2go), drop the council an email. Some car sharing is better than none. It's not the size that counts.

[A car2go in the Lex-Ham neighborhood.]


Adam said...

I don't know the history, but wonder what the reaction would have been had they proposed the limited service area first (or did they?). It just doesn't seem very different from a service like Hour Car, that doesn't serve anywhere near all of the city already.

Rox said...

I don't know Bill. I think it's challenging when a transportation service effectively "redlines" portions of the city that aren't profitable enough. From an equity perspective I just don't think that's ok. I do appreciate Amy's points about them not being subsidized - but I can just imagine the outcry of taxi service stopped going to particular parts of the city because it's not cost effective. In part this is a density argument, but it's also a socioeconomic argument I think - and that's the part that I'm really struggling with. (Note: I'm a user of car2go and am pissed that it'll basically be useless moving forward, since my neighborhood is cut out).

Anonymous said...

In Seattle they just expanded to the entire city.

You can see a clear pattern , they literally commute to work with them Then drive home.

This leave huge gaps in the city. Sometimes bigger is not better.