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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Car Sharing

Air Date: Week of

Last year a company called Car Sharing Portland hung out its shingle for business. A couple of cars are shared by about 25 people who book them for various periods of time, even as little as one hour. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on how this transportation experiment is going.


CURWOOD: Last year a company called Car Sharing Portland opened in Oregon's largest city. The company owned a couple of cars and about 25 people shared the use of them -- a bit like a car rental agency -- except that drivers book the vehicles out for as little as an hour. The new enterprise was welcomed by a wave of publicity but not much has been heard about it since. We asked Kristian Foden-Vencil to give us an update.

(A door opens)

WOMAN: Bye, Walt

(The door shuts)

FODEN-VENCIL: Lioness Ayers bids goodbye to one of her many cats, locks her front door, and sets off for the day. Her walk doesn't end at a car in the driveway; she doesn't own one. And it doesn't end at the usual bus stop, either. Today she's walking six blocks to the nearest car sharing parking spot -- because she needs a car for a few hours to visit a client for work. Ms. Ayers moved to Portland 14 months ago, and when she heard about the car-sharing company, she decided against shelling out for a new set of wheels.

AYERS: I'm an old hippie. Most of my friends are old hippies. This is a concept that resonates really well with people who come from a history of activism, I think.

FODEN-VENCIL: She uses the Dodge Neon for a couple of hours every week -- to do things like bring the heavy groceries home or get out of town to enjoy the vistas that are the reason many people live in Oregon. She's really happy with the deal, too. Here's how it works. First, she had to plunk down a 500-dollar security deposit. In return, she received a set of keys and a telephone number.

(A car phone rings)

ANSWERING MACHINE: Welcome to Car Sharing reservations. If you'd like to receive (beep) Please enter your member ID number, plus your secret pin code, followed by the pound button.

FODEN-VENCIL: Using a touch tone phone, she can book the car for as many hours as she needs. Then she walks to the spot where the car is always left.

(Car door opens)

FODEN-VENCIL: Members pay $1.50 an hour, and 40 cents a mile. That covers the cost of insurance, gas, and maintenance. It's a quirky idea that has worked well in Europe for decades. But in America, where the car is king, it has been slow to catch on. Russel Martin worked on a government-sponsored car-sharing catastrophe in San Francisco back in the 80s. Members refused to pay their bills and the cars kept breaking down. But, he says, the Portland company he helped found is different because it's for-profit and you have to hand over your credit card number before you join. I asked Mr. Martin whether he was surprised that a feel-good idea like car-sharing had survived.

MARTIN: Not in Portland. (Laughs) I think if it could work in any city in this country, it would work in Portland. We have a pretty diverse member base, we've got quite a few people who would fall into that category but quite a few others who wouldn't.

FODEN-VENCIL: He says the business has grown to 200 people, eight cars and a pick-up truck for two very good reasons. First, Portland has a good mass transit system, so it's easy to get around without a vehicle. And second, car sharing makes economic sense.

MARTIN: A lot of people tend to think that the cost of operating a car is about five cents a mile for gasoline. You write that check for the insurance every six months or so and you maybe have a car payment every month. But when you add it all together and then average it out over the distance you drive, it can be quite surprising that it's 50 cents or more per mile.

Russel Martin figures it's cheaper to share a car if you drive less than ten thousand miles a year. Still, if economics ruled our transportation needs, we'd all be riding bikes or the bus. Maren Souders oversees the membership base at Car Sharing Portland and says many people enroll for environmental reasons. But not everyone. Quite a few already own one car, and just don't want to pay for a second.

SOUDERS: These are people whose egos are not wrapped up in their cars. These are people who see transportation as sort of a utilitarian thing.

(A car starts up)

FODEN-VENCIL: But what does the person in the street, or outside a neighborhood grocery store, think of car sharing?

WOMAN 1: Probably a chauffeur would be the only thing it would take me to get out of my car.

MAN: It sounds like to me it would be kind of a challenge to return the car in the middle of your work day. If you had a day off and time wasn't of the essence, then I could see it working.

WOMAN 2: I think it's a fabulous idea and I'm glad that there is a program like that available in Portland. It's the next best thing to bike commuting.

FODEN-VENCIL: In fact, locally, Car Sharing Portland is considered to be quite the success story. So far, nobody has stolen a car and members keep them clean and running smoothly. Even some vehicle manufacturers are keeping an eye on this new trend. Anne Smith of Daimler Chrysler.

SMITH: At some point in the future there's just not going to be the room for many more vehicles on the road. So, we're certainly aware that you need to look for what is the best and most convenient way to move our customers around.

(Beeps; a door opens)

FODEN-VENCIL: Environmental psychiatrist Richard Katzev, answers the intercom at his loft in downtown Portland. He studied car sharing around the world and surveyed members of the Portland company.

KATZEV: They were satisfied with the vehicles, they measured up to their expectations. They were able to book a vehicle when they had made a reservation. People are very, very uncertain before they join, whether or not there will be a vehicle available when they wanted to use it.

FODEN-VENCIL: He says once that concern had been assuaged, more than a quarter of all members decided to sell the cars they had hung onto. Such numbers are music to the ears of many environmentalists who have been trying to get us out from behind our steering wheels for years. But there's still a problem. Car Sharing Portland has yet to break even. It makes enough money to pay for the cars, gas, and insurance, but the company needs at least 300 members to pay for overheads like staff and the office. But that won't be long, says Car Sharing's Russel Martin. Then perhaps they will merge with a regular car rental company or even start selling franchises in other cities. Seattle and San Francisco are currently working on their own car sharing programs.

(Traffic, footfalls)

FODEN-VENCIL: Meanwhile, Lioness Ayers walks through town to pick up her Car Sharing vehicle. She wishes her neighbors to the north and south good luck with their new programs, but, she says, there are some towns where you just have to own a car. That's the way they were built and that's the way they will always be.

AYERS: I lived for a while in Los Angeles I would not give up my car in Los Angeles.

FODEN-VENCIL: For Living on Earth, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.



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