Business

San Francisco is blocking the most innovative transportation company

Car2Go
Image Credit: ell brown/flickr

Bay Area Bike Share started selling memberships today at noon, bringing bike sharing to San Francisco.

Bike sharing was recently launched in New York City and has blown away all expectations: According to the site’s stats, New Yorkers have cycled more than 1.8 million miles on Citi bikes since the end of May. Tech and travel writer Dan Frommer says Citi Bike is his new iPhone, and “is easily one of the best things that has happened to New York in the last decade.”

But as great as bike sharing is, bikes can only take you so far. And with San Francisco’s hills, for many people biking is out of the question.

That’s why I’m disappointed to see that San Francisco isn’t even considering one of the most innovative transportation schemes yet: Car2go. I wrote about Car2go last year. It combines the benefits of carsharing services like Zipcar and Getaround with the point-to-point service of bike sharing. Unlike Zipcar and Getaround, which require you to make reservations and return the car to where you picked it up, Car2go lets you walk up to a car, get in, drive to your destination, and leave it. When you’re ready to return, you find another car using an app. And you’re not on the clock during the time you’re not using the car.

Car2go wants to come to San Francisco, but the city isn’t having it. Despite a proposed program to increase the visibility of car sharing by allocating on-street spaces, one-way car sharing is specifically excluded. “The proposed pilot will not include the one-way car share model,” says the draft report from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority. “While promising in many respects, the potential benefits and effects of the one-way model are still insufficiently documented and understood at this time.” In other words: It hasn’t been out long enough and there hasn’t been enough research, so we’re going to ignore it.

I hear from entrepreneurs all the time that government doesn’t understand innovation. I can’t think of a case where this is more true than one-way car sharing.

Decisions should be made based on whether a program meets the policy objectives, not whether the model is too new. According to the draft proposal, “the key goals of the SFMTA’s car sharing policy are to expand the availability of car sharing across San Francisco, increase the usage of car sharing, and preserve or increase choice of car share organizations (CSOs).”

To expand the availability of car sharing across San Francisco, the city has laid out — by fiat — a scheme that forces car sharing organizations to offer cars in remote areas. But Car2go offers a better way by using data to show where the cars are actually used. With the one-way model, cars can end up anywhere in the city. Car2go takes the usage data and redraws the boundaries based on demand. If people in the Sunset don’t want car sharing, it’s a silly use of resources to put cars there. Because Car2go doesn’t require fixed parking spaces (in contrast to nearly every other car sharing system), the system can be much more responsive to actual consumer demand than projected demand.

The city also wants to increase the usage of car sharing. Car2go addresses many of the concerns that people have about car sharing: difficulty in parking, paying for time they’re not using, and having to return the car to the same spot. The company’s Smart cars can easy fit into tight spaces. When I was in Washington, D.C., I made a game of finding the tiniest spot I could park in. Even with my mediocre parallel parking skills, I could squeeze the thing into many places. I once parked a Car2go right behind another one in a single metered space. (Disclosure: Car2go provided me with free access to its network when I was in D.C.)

In San Francisco, there are many half spaces that are perfect for car2go vehicles.

Part of the reason I keep my car is I want to be able to go to places like Golden Gate Park. With the traditional car share model, I have to pay for all of the time I’m hanging out in Golden Gate Park. With Car2go, I only pay for the time I’m using the car. That’s taking sharing to a much more granular level and increasing the use of that car. Cars spend more time driving around and less time being parked, depriving others of that parking space. One-way sharing isn’t just a benefit for Car2go users, but for everyone looking for a parking space.

The visibility of Car2go vehicles — tiny Smart cars with distinctive logos — can also help increase awareness of car sharing. If you’re in Portland, Washington, Austin, or other markets where Car2go operates, you know something different is going on.

Also, if San Francisco allows Car2go to operate in the city, it would increase the car sharing choices available. Not only does it introduce a new operator, it introduces an entirely new model.

Beyond the stated goals, Car2go makes much better use of parking space than traditional car sharing services. A space allocated to a traditional car sharing service can generally only be used by a specific vehicle because that vehicle needs to be returned there. With Car2go, any Car2go vehicle could be placed there. And because the cars are smaller, two of them can fit in the same space.

The draft says, “Giving extraordinary privileges to organizations using the public right of way or exemptions to any parking regulations, such as dedicating on-street parking spaces for the exclusive use of car share organizations, can only be justified if it produces substantial public benefits.”

Car2go not only meets the policy objectives, it meets them better than any of the traditional models. It’s a shame that a city that claims to be innovative can’t see this sort of revolutionary innovation.


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