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Seattle Car-Share Is Growing, But Is It Cutting Traffic?

After launching a pilot program three years ago enabling the company car2go to use on-street parking spots for its car-share fleet, Seattle is pursuing an expansion that would allow new companies to enter the market and dramatically increase the availability of point-to-point car-share vehicles.

Photo via The Urbanist

Scott Bonjukian at The Urbanist has the details about the expansion legislation and some interesting stats from the pilot program:

Up from 350 vehicles beginning in 2012, the company has reached the 500 vehicle cap under a pilot program monitored by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). The service has proved immensely popular, and reportedly has 59,000 members in Seattle -- the largest of car2go’s 30 home cities -- representing nearly one-tenth of the city’s population. The company has requested authority to expand. The proposed legislation (PDF) will increase the permit cap six-fold and allow up to four carshare operators in the city.

According to a staff report (PDF), the vehicles currently occupy only 0.7% of the city’s paid parking space. On average, each vehicle is used six times per day and parked only 68 minutes between trips. Personal vehicles are unused 95 percent of the time.

Committee chair Tom Rasmussen noted that car2go estimates up to 4% (2,360) of Seattle members have ditched a personal vehicle since joining, which removes the option of driving everywhere for every activity and results in congestion reduction. Increasing membership of carshare services will only improve this outcome. SDOT Director Scott Kubly said car sharing is "…a key component to creating choices for people to get around the city, and allowing people to live a car-free or car-light lifestyle."

The pilot program’s limitations will be resolved by the proposed legislation. There will be a cap of four car share operators; only two others, Zipcar and BMW’s DriveNow, have expressed interest, but the additional competition will enable the market to set prices and create greater consumer choice. The pilot program’s service area will also expand to the entire city limits, up from about two-thirds of it now. And after two years of service, new operators will be required to serve the entire city in exchange for an increased cap of 750 vehicles per operator (car2go would fall under this now). Effectively, this translates to a maximum of 3,000 car share vehicles citywide. That’s in addition to the hundreds of spot-based Zipcars already in place. The legislation requires regular reports from SDOT, and starting next year the SDOT Director is authorized to adjust the caps as necessary.

The permit cost for each vehicle will increase from $1,330 to $1,730. During the public hearing, car2go representative Walter Rosenkrantz said the company could not simply absorb that cost and may need to raise rental rates or reduce their sponsorship of community groups and events. SDOT’s reports are to include data on neighborhood parking rates and utilization so that fees can be adjusted as needed.

While car2go seems to be helping Seattle make more efficient use of scarce curbside space, its effect on traffic is still unclear. One of the benefits of car-share is that it makes the cost of each driving trip apparent, as opposed to purchasing a car, which frontloads the costs and makes each subsequent trip feel cheaper than it really is. So are car2go members weighing these costs and driving less than they did before joining? On the flipside, how many were car-free before joining, and now drive more? The Seattle City Council memo on the car2go pilot [PDF] didn't give a clear answer, but it did include this nugget:

In the car2go survey, about 63% of members reported no change in daily miles traveled in personal vehicles. If car2go miles are added to an unchanged number of personal vehicle miles, those members may be driving more miles than before they joined car2go. It is not known how much the availability of 2,500 potential additional car-share vehicles would reduce members’ use of personal vehicles.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network: Bike Portland reports that city leaders have suddenly shifted their strategy to secure more funds for street improvements. The City Fix posts a dispatch from this week's Transforming Transportation conference about street safety in developing world cities. And if you thought Elon Musk was done trying to sell people on the long-distance travel fantasy known as the Hyperloop, think again, writes the Dallas Morning News Transportation Blog.

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