A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Carsharing (at last) is coming to Portland

Last night at City Hall, Councilors voted to dedicate four prime parking spots (two near Monument Square and two more near Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal) to U-Car Share, a relatively new subsidiary of U-Haul. In about a month, U-Car Share will deliver four PT Cruisers to Portland to launch our first carsharing service. John Richardson has the whole story in today's Press Herald.

After years of trying to attract Zipcar, I'm very glad we're getting U-Car instead. This young and growing carsharing company will be able to devote more attention and resources to Portland as one of its base markets - and having the resources of an established company like U-Haul behind it will also help tremendously. Hopefully we'll see relatively rapid growth, with new shared U-Cars coming to Munjoy Hill, USM, and the West End. I'll update the blog again as soon as U-Car launches its new reservations and membership web site for Portland.

U-Car Share's Web Site (includes a "frequently asked questions" page with details on how carsharing works): www.ucarshare.com


HeyHeather said...

I don't think it has anything to do with Zipcar. They are in Biddeford, Brunswick, Lewiston, and Waterville. Seems to me that there are larger portion of people there the might be more open to this kind of thing.

C Neal said...

Hi Heather,
Zipcar opened shop in those communities because the colleges and universities there were willing to subsidize their operations. The beauty of U-Car Share is that they were willing to set up shop in Portland without going on the dole.

I absolutely have nothing against Zipcar - I was actively trying to recruit them here myself. But Zipcar is more focused on colleges and big cities; I think U-Car Share will be a better fit for Portland.

Thanks for reading!

Ari said...

I can't say I'm sold on UCarShare. The car rental companies have dabbled quite a bit in car sharing but, so far, have not been particularly successful. UCarShare has, I believe, been shut down and retooled as it was once available only at UHaul locations—so it is definitely better now than it was. Still there are some issues:

1. Their choice of car is troublesome. The PT Cruiser is an odd choice. It seems that UHaul could get them on the cheap and is using them for that reason. But the car is (in my opinion and that of others) rather ugly, and it was cool, for a few weeks in 2002.

Furthermore, most car sharing organizations (CSOs) have a green aspect, and try to use fuel efficient vehicles. The PT Cruiser, which gets 21 mpg is actually classified as a SUV. So not only is it rather polluting, but when gas goes back up, it may be trouble, since CSOs pay for gas.

CSOs often play up a "cool factor" and the PT Cruiser doesn't pass the test. It is also not really very functional. It is quite small inside, significantly smaller than a Prius, which gets better than twice the mileage. On the bright side, it is being discontinued, so perhaps UCarShare will have to diversify their fleet.

2. Small markets and startups have been, historically, served by non-profits. Except for Zipcar, nearly every car sharing organization in the country is a non-profit. The start-up costs for car sharing are quite high (you need cars, on-call staff and marketing, and it takes a long time to convince people to give up their cars) and the return on investment takes many years. UHaul, of course, has money to burn, but it remains to be seen how long they'll stick with a money-losing venture before pulling the plug.

And don't worry, it will lose money for quite some time.

3. Community involvement is often very important to a successful car sharing scheme. If UHaul hires a good staff in Portland and can continue to involve the government and the community, they'll stand a much better chance of succeeding. This, however, costs money. A car sharing organization with four cars often needs a glorified volunteer base to operate—someone to go jump cars when the batteries die, someone to deal with member billing questions, someone to track down cars when they are late—but volunteers are often drawn more towards non-profits.

Car sharing benefits from economies of scale in the long run, but in the short term UCarShare will probably share staff with their local office to save money. Unless they get the right person, there might be an enthusiasm issue. Even the for-profits (Zipcar and Flexcar) were started by idealists, and while making money was, perhaps, more of a goal than with the non-profits (PhillyCarShare, IGo, CityCarShare and many others) it was a long-term goal.

I don't want to throw a wet blanket on car sharing in Portland; I think it's great. I'm just not sure UCarShare is the best vendor for the city. It seems that with the community in Portland it might be better served by an idealistic non-profit with roots in the community. As easy as it was for UCarShare to come in to Portland, they could pick up and leave for whatever reason. A non-profit with local funding is much less likely to do so.

Portland is very interesting because it has structural advantages for car sharing, including a dense core but especially an island population of more than 1000 for whom a few hours of car rental is significantly cheaper than taking their car on the ferry. Having these folks already ready for car sharing is a great boost for the city. I'll definitely be watching to see how Portland adopts car sharing, and I wish it the best!

(Full disclosure: I work for HOURCAR, the car sharing organization in the Twin Cities. Our blog is at HOURCAR.blogspot.com)