36. Car Sharing

A red, top-down convertible was spotted northbound on the interstate from Center City Philadelphia on a fall day. Its distinguishing feature was a logo on the side that identified it as the property of a nonprofit corporation presently serving more than 55,000 Philadelphians who prefer to use vehicles only when needed.

PhillyCarShare (PCS) is the product of four young men and one woman who six years ago created a transportation system “cheaper, greener, and more convenient than individual car ownership.” The result in Philadelphia has been the transportation equivalent of the cellphone revolution. The economic benefits to individuals, businesses, governments, and institutions-not to mention the effects on traffic, building costs, and air pollution-are readily and widely understood. Still to be assessed are the beneficial effects on land uses and values. Despite its vast implications for urban living, this car-sharing phenomenon has been given little attention by public planning agencies.

The entrepreneurs who organized and now manage the car-sha ring program discovered a car share prototype in Switzertand that they believed would work well in Philadelphia, which has the population (almost 1.5 million people) and density (frequently 45 households per acre) that favor such a system. Their objective was to produce a transportation option appealing to the users’ economic self interest while serving desirable community and social goals. Similar for-profit services exist in more than a dozen other places, including Philadelphia. One in Pittsburgh is sponsored by the business improvement district (BID), Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, reflecting the common interest among businesses in the service’s economic as well as social outcome.

Car ownership in cities typically involves a considerable amount of downtime, and infrequent use incurs high expenditures. The average annual ownership costs of a single car estimated at $9,000 in Philadelphia- are wasted in cities where automobiles are used far less frequently than in auto-dependent suburbs and exurbs. In Center City Philadelphia, for example, half the workforce uses transit or walks to jobs or shopping. Cars typically are used only for occasional trips outside the city or for special shopping needs. Most of the time, a vehicle is parked streetside or in a garage.

The economic costs of car ownership are only the beginning. Purchase of a garage space can cost $25,000 in Center City. Doing without a garage space results in the daily irritation of searching for on-street parking, especially hard for many younger residents whose limited shelter budget forces them to compete for spaces on the street

In contrast, PCS offers a wide va riety of vehicles (including vans and trucks) for a base price of $3.90 an hour or $39 a day. The service is convenient, with more than 200 locations at train stations, privately owned parking garages and lots, and tucked into the network of alleys running throughout the older sections of the city. PCS intends to double the number of vehicle locations, putting a “pod”-a place where one or more vehicles are available-on every block or two throughout the denser sections of the city.

Users choose between two plans. A monthly $15 yields a lower cost for use and there are no deposits or annual dues. Consumers pay $0.16 per mile or $0.25 for use above 200 miles. They cover gas, premium insurance, reserved parking, child seats, and 24-hour roadside assistance. The first two represent major savings for users, allowing households to shift expenditures to more and/or better housing, education expenses, vacations, or other choices. Less-obvious savings come from avoiding the cost of depreciation, now at 15 percent of total car costs. Car owners have high fixed costs and only marginally save money by not driving; PCS members have minimal or no fixed costs and incur charges only when they drive. These fixed and variable cost calculations work for businesses as well. For example, a planning consultant based in Center City uses PhillyCarShare for work-related trips once or twice a week. The founders also promote PhillyCarShare’s positive effects on air quality and climate change.

A 2007 survey of car share users found that they have substantially higher levels of education, that half own their residences (very high for city dwellers), and that they estimated a savings of $4,000 a year since using PhillyCarShare. The convenience of the pod locations is the consideration that most often led to a decision to join PCS. Asked whether car sharing changed their lives, more than half said it encouraged them to avoid buying a car or helped them to sell an existing vehicle. Respondents said that they were driving 113 fewer miles per month, which translates into 35,000 miles of driving avoided by members. Since PhillyCarShare was launched five years ago. 26 million fewer miles have been driven. Clayton Lane, deputy executive director of PCS, estimates that this factor (plus the use of more environmentally friendly vehicles) has cut in half Philadelphia’s demand for foreign oil.

PCS plans to create pods throughout the city accessible to users within the same walking range as that of small transit stations. Lane believes that Philadelphia’s residential density pretty much assures success. Rowhouse- dominated Center City, University City, and South Philadelphia support most of the pods created thus far. Older, built-up suburbs, such as Haddonfield, New Jersey, with rail transit stations, are also favorable locations. Users, lane says, are concentrated in the middle of the income scale.

In Philadelphia, experience with developers has been positive; more than ten new residential and mixed-use projects have or have agreed to have pods on or adjacent to their properties. Examples include:

  • Bancroft Green, near Graduate Hospital, which describes itself as environ menially friendly and offers occupants one yeafs worth of driving credits and access to a two-vehicle pod. The 73-unit Spring Arts Point makes a comparable offer.
  • The Mills at East Falls, which comprises 25 loft apartments and 50 live/work units in a number of restored industrial structures. Public transit is beyond acceptable walking ranges.
  • The HUB at Chestnut in University City, which will consist of two condo towers with no on-site parking.
  • The High Street Project, which aims to be the city’s first carbon-neutral community. It, also, will have no on-site parking.

Gene LeFevre, a Center City developer and property manager, made space for shared vehicles at his Cosmopolitan apartments. “I added a pod for the convenience of my tenants and to encourage them to get out of their cars. At the rental office, we promote PhillyCarShare to prospective renters. This is partly selfish; lower fixed costs for my tenants may allow them to upgrade to a more expensive apartment It also frees up space in our garage.” He reports that PCS vehicles are heavily used at his properties.

Regarding the economic implications of shared vehicles, LeFevre observes that construction of a parking space below grade costs about $30,000. Surface parking costs less, but is an unattractive feature in an urban center. The number of spaces is determined by law, not by market demand. “We would all build fewer spaces, if allowed,” he says.

LeFevre also notes the social benefits. PhillyCarShare offers environmentally friendly vehicles, a far better option for students whose limited budgets typically require them to use older, more polluting cars. “Looking for curbside parking adds mileage, congestion, and pollution,” he explains.

Cecil Baker, who has designed and developed residential projects throughout the city, sees the prospect of greater flexibility in parking requirements as Philadelphia contemplates a thorough revision of its plans and codes. This, however, will be a multiyear endeavor and there is no assurance that parking ratios will be addressed. At 350 square feet per parking space, two such spaces are the equivalent of a small bedroom or den, requiring wasteful land consumption as well as unneeded construction, maintenance, and borrowing costs. Even without car sharing, municipalities tend to require excessive onsite parking, which, in effect, is a kind of tax burden on development, the cost of which is passed on to residents. In addition, convenient access to cars enhances the value of homes without on-site parking, and higher property values result in more revenue for local governments.

The increasing cost of gasoline is one factor in PCS’s success, especially with young residents who want to live in Philadelphia at lower fixed costs or with improved housing. A less tangible benefit comes to households whose occupants are over 55. the other major group swelling central Philadelphia’s old neighborhoods. For these residents, Lane offers another slogan, “Our wheels; your freedom.” Seniors enjoy the reduced hassles when they eliminate a car from their daily responsibilities.

Until recently, inexpensive driving options for the occasional weekend trip, business appointment, or visit to a location where public transportation is not convenient were limited to rental car operations with far less flexible access and greater costs. PCS would have been impossible ten years ago without today’s technology. Reservations are Web-based; access to cars scattered from block to block is controlled through a key that fits every vehicle and records the amount of use and secures the vehicles. Beyond Philadelphia’s density, other factors contributing to successful car sharing include a winning economic and social vision, and an organization free to act in its own interest.

As of this past April, there were 18 U.S. and 13 Canadian programs sharing more than 3,600 and 900 vehicles, respectively, reports Susan Shaheen, at the University of California-Berkley. In North America, most providers are nonprofit ventures and coops, with a sprinkling of for-profits. Locations vary from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Nelson, British Columbia. In Europe, operators include Green Wheels in the Netherlands and Streetcar in Brighton, England.

Could this transportation concept sweep the United States? There are likely hundreds more possibilities in municipalities and counties having the requisite residential density. car sharing will probably increase along with the growth of transit, which also requires minimum densities, and with the population surge in cities and older towns. It will serve as a low-cost transit extender not requiring much public capital or leadership from cautious officials lacking the market perspective of the risk·taking PCS founders.

One task that can be usefully undertaken by official planning and regulatory agencies is a review of current parking requirements in municipal zoning; places with car-sharing densities should authorize minimum parking rules when and where car sharing is available. Lane points out that it would not be necessary to completely revise zoning (as presently contemplated in Philadelphia) in order to make changes friendly to car sharing in on-site parking requirements.

Car sharing can help increase urban densities, a Quality of life long advocated by those who enjoy the diversity that density brings. Those who see greater density as an essential precondition to the reduction of global warming would be prospective supporters. Governments and institutions can reduce operating costs by substituting car sharing for the far greater costs of owning and maintaining fleets of vehicles. For example, car sharing enabled the city of Philadelphia to eliminate 329 vehicles for a savings to date of $7 million. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University similarly plan to reduce operating and capital costs. Transit systems can extend their reach by creating pods at stations and by adopting the Philadelphia system of sharing the costs of getting to and from stations.

It is difficult to recall a more promising urban initiative than car sharing. It is independent of government giveaways, depends on local initiatives outside government, and meets the modem need to contribute to various environmental solutions. It appeals greatly to the economic self interest of individuals, as well as to that of businesses and institutions.

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