Liberate yourself from the shackles of car ownership!
The people one car over are staring. I’d like to believe it’s because they admire the thrift—financial, environmental—of this Smart Car I’m driving. They recognize the Car2Go logo on its tiny flank and me as one of thousands of forward-thinking Seattleites who’ve bought into the Car2Go program since it launched here in January. They’re idling at this red light and questioning the albatross that is owning a late-model Lexus. They long for the miracle of Internet-enabled, on-demand car sharing with their forward-thinking peers.
More likely they’re staring because this Smart Car is a dippy-looking thing. Whatever. They’ll know soon enough: Car-sharing is the future of urban transportation.
Car2Go has taken off; by now you’ve probably seen some of its 330 Smart Cars flitting around Seattle like smug little fleas. Licensed drivers who register for the program (a one-time $35 fee) locate nearby cars via smart phone app, swipe their membership card above a windshield-mounted sensor for access, and pay 38 cents per minute to drive. Park the car anywhere you want—for free, thanks to City-mandated easements for Car2Go vehicles—and swipe out. That’s it. When you want another ride, open the app and hope a Car2Go is parked nearby, which it usually is.
The concept is simple and the execution efficient. Car2Go’s flaws—wonky website, crappy touch-screen radio, no back seat, no coverage in South Seattle—are vastly outweighed by its conveniences. With gas and insurance provided, it’s economical: I’ve spent about $170 on Car2Go each of the last two months, a fair rate given that I don’t own a car and I now spend less on cabs and public transportation.
That last bit is Earth-killingly ironic: I walk less and drive more now than before Car2Go. But I’m cutting back. Imagine you could log an exact per-minute price for each minute behind the wheel. You’d be more mindful of time spent driving, right? (Up until late February, the Car2Go website didn’t tally miles or minutes. The app still doesn’t.)
Car2Go is good, but the real revolution is car-sharing in general, and other options exist. Launched in Seattle in late October of last year, SideCar is a decentralized, donation-based, “community-driven” ride-sharing service. Riders use a smart phone app to hail a driver, each of which has been vetted by SideCar staffers. The app maps your location, your destination, your driver’s destination and ETA, and gives a “community average” fare for the ride. Your driver shows up in his or her own vehicle. You pay electronically, no cash exchanged; it’s technically a donation, which allows SideCar to avoid the expensive red-tape regulation of a dispatcher/taxi service. I’ve caught rides from a software engineer named Lee in his electric Toyota Mitsubishi and a young woman named Shalonda who I believe genuinely enjoyed my inebriated banter.
SideCar recently logged its 100,000th ride shared. The world-changing idealism behind it is as compelling as the business model: You pay your neighbor for a lift. Also, SideCar takes a 20 percent cut. Drivers make an average $20 an hour. In January, a ride from Ballard to Capitol Hill cost $16 total—at least $5 below the standard Yellow Cab fare. Prices have gone up as users pay above the algorithm-derived community average. Nobody wants to be a cheapskate (a virtue that ends up boosting SideCar’s bottom line).
In San Francisco, its city of origin, SideCar competes with Lyft and Uber in a viciously competitive, multi-million-dollar ride-sharing market as the California Public Utilities Commission figures out how to regulate this emerging industry. Authorities in Seattle have welcomed SideCar and are working with the company to collect data on regional driving habits.
Lee the SideCar driver hipped me to RelayRides, a long-term car-sharing service founded in Boston and HQed in San Francisco. Along with his electric Toyota Mitsubishi, he told me, he owns a biodiesel Jetta that sits mostly unused, so he rents it out through RelayRides for days or weeks at a time. Before a recent trip to Portland, I signed up online, where the service confirms your clean driving record in a matter of minutes. Then I drove a Car2Go to First Hill to pick up my ride. I met a fedora’d Belgian named Wim—pronounced vim—in front of his apartment and he handed me the keys to his Subaru Forester, easy as you please.
With insurance covered by RelayRides (thanks to a new Washington law put in motion by SideCar’s founder), I paid $150 through the RelayRides website. Wim pocketed 60 percent of the price, which he had set himself and was about $30 more than Thrifty quoted me. But RelayRides spared me the hassle of a corporate rental agency.
And I felt more responsible for Wim’s roomy, well-kept Forester than I would’ve a generic micro-compact from Thrifty. I commiserated with Wim. As I drove down I-5, I thought to myself, Back in Seattle, there’s a man who loves this car. While he shared it with me, I loved it too.
Photo by Nate Watters