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Driven to Share

Austin is hoping the next big thing comes in a tiny car: It's the first North American city to pilot a car-sharing program promising the possibility of less congestion and lower emissions.

In Austin, the push for more public transit options is fueling a hybrid solution billed as “personal public transportation.” Austin has become the only North American city to pilot a car-sharing program in which a fleet of 200 Smart ForTwo cars can be used 24/7, without reservation, for one-way or round trips, so long as the drivers know how to share.

It’s brought to Austin’s asphalt arteries by Car2Go, a cooperative car-share subsidiary of German automaker Daimler that launched in Austin last November. Company leaders say they chose the Capitol City for its community of “early adopters,” existing public transportation infrastructure and large college population — not to mention a huge population of state workers — which led the state of Texas to become Car2Go’s newest government partner.

“They can use them by the hour, the minute or by the day to run errands, to go to appointments at their leisure,” said Car2Go North American CEO Nicholas Cole.

So far, only government employees and other exclusive pilot testers are allowed to sign up. Membership cards also serve as an access card to any car in the network, so long as it’s available. See a car, swipe your card to unlock the ride, and find a key inside. Users may drive the car around for however long they’d like, but they’re charged 35 cents a minute or $12.99 an hour,  fuel included. Park it (for free, thanks to an agreement with the city), then leave it. Others with cards can then take the car for their own trips. The service also lets you pre-book a vehicle and locate a car by phone or online.

Advocates speak of car sharing’s potential to ease congestion and the parking hassles that come with it, reduce carbon emissions and be a groundbreaking transportation alternative as urban centers become more populated.  Austin is now the most congested city of its size in the nation, and three Texas areas — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Beaumont-Port Arthur — already have failed to meet federal standards for air quality. To stave off the state’s growing population — and by extension, congestion and pollution problems — Austin was willing to give Car2Go a ride. But the extent of savings, environmental and fiscal, is still an open question. The pilot testing by city of Austin employees is only six months old; state employees are just starting.

“We hope we can figure out whether this is something that has a large impact or a decent impact, and in either case we’ll decide where we go from there,” said Dustin Lanier of the Texas Council on Competitive Government, who is heading up the Car2Go implementation for the state. “One of the things you commonly hear about is the fear that once [drivers] get here, if their kid gets sick or need to run an errand, they’re stuck. So this kind of capacity … can have a real positive impact,” Lanier said.

In exchange for opening up membership for government employees’ personal use and giving away free drive time for business purposes, the state and city gave Car2Go users free, on-street premium parking, which has proven a huge perk for pilot testers. While no money actually changed hands, the deal was valued at $85,000 by the city.

During the state’s beta phase, usage will be closely monitored to see if there are potential benefits for taxpayers. According to www.fueleconomy.gov, driving a 2009 Smart ForTwo vehicle 15,000 miles annually emits 5.1 tons of greenhouse gases. That puts the car near the “best” end of the scale. On the fiscal side of the equation, the state’s top 10 agencies currently spend a combined $50 million a year in reimbursing employees for mileage, so Lanier wants to know whether car sharing could free up some cash. Texas state agencies also maintain a fleet of 4,000 of government passenger vehicles, which can be costly.

“I’ve had a number of agencies talk about the amount of the fleet they need to maintain, and if they knew they knew they could have access to a vehicle on a short runway, it would affect how much capital they need to retain,” Lanier said.

The city hasn't released any specific numbers, but Austin Transportation Department spokeswoman Karla Villalon says she’s seen usage exceed expectations. “In the big picture our employees are using these much more than we anticipated.,” Villalon said. “We’re looking at cost effectiveness of the Smart cars to phase out the cars in the fleet."

The company, meanwhile, wants to see whether cars are being used enough that the program has sustainability. German engineers and researchers from the University of Texas are expected to team up to take closer looks at usage, revenue models and where the cars are circulating among city streets.

Before the end of the year, Car2Go plans to expand its driver base, offering memberships to the public. Will regular Austinites take advantage of the sharing? Can car-share actually alleviate congestion? The state and Car2Go both say it’s far too early to know, but they argue that car-sharing complements public transportation and cycling, potentially lowering a city’s overall vehicle miles traveled.

Similar car sharing programs, such as Zip Car, in Washington, D.C., have proven successful for folks who are already reliant on public transportation.  “Cars are expensive to buy and maintain. One of the things that we need to provide is choices for people on how they get around,” said Ann Mesnikoff, a Washington-based attorney with the Sierra Club. “Zip cars fit into that. It allows people to walk, bike, or use transit but know that if they need a car, they can get one.”

In Austin, Car2Go pilot testers say the program has them thinking about getting rid of their existing personal vehicles. “I have an older car that’s costly to maintain,” said John Jones, a graduate student at UT. “For as little as I actually need to use my car, it would be economical to just use Car2Go for everything I needed.”

That’s the kind of thinking Car2Go is banking on for its business model to burgeon. It resists comparisons to existing programs like Zip Car, since Car2Go vehicles don’t require reservations and can be used one-way and parked anywhere, instead of returned to an original location.  But car share 1.0, if you will, has already proven its utility in other cities.

Of course, Texas cities don’t have the same kinds of extensive routes and networks of public transportation as other major U.S. cities. Cole, Car2Go's CEO, suggests the availability of the program to help those who need to go beyond bus or rail routes can be part of the policy discussion when governments consider beefing up public transit. “I don’t think we’re going to push cities to create policy," he said. "I think we’re going to be part of the solution once they make a decision to change their policy."

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