Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Great Zipcar vs. Car2go Experiment: Part I

My family drives an average of 12,000 miles a year. Driving relatively little is easy in our walkable, close-in neighborhood, but life without a car is still unfathomable to me. Those last-minute, mid-recipe trips to Fred Meyer; those evenings when I rush home from the office just to turn around and ferry my daughter to her band concert: they beg for the convenience and independence of a car.
But that doesn’t mean we have to own one. It turns out that my neighborhood, rich in transportation options, is also the Portland-center of the somewhat new concept of carsharing.

A few years ago, Zipcar vehicles started appearing in dedicated parking spots near my house. In 2012, I couldn’t help but notice a swarm of cute, miniature white and blue Car2Go vehicles parked on random neighborhood streets or passing me as I biked to work.  Their omnipresence piqued my curiosity. I asked myself, “What would life be like without owning a car?” This wet and blustery fall, I decided to find out.

I wanted to try both car-sharing services, so I marked out two weeks in November: one for ZipCar and the other for Car2Go.

This was the plan: I would continue to move around town as I normally did, biking to work and walking the girls to school. The only difference would be that any motorized transportation would be in a car-share vehicle. I would pretend to not own a car. The experience, I hoped, would temporarily replicate that of a life free of car ownership, with all the associated perks and frustrations.
a Zipcar in Portland's South WaterfrontMy intention was not to rate these services for the general public, although I hope they find value in my observations. My goal was to evaluate the two programs specifically in how well they satisfied my life’s transportation needs. Two weeks later, I felt smarter, more in touch with an ever-evolving society, but definitely older and more aware of my own stubborn resistance to change. I have to admit, I was a little relieved to revert to my spoiled, car-owning self. I understand just how lucky I am to live in my neighborhood and city.
In this installment and the next, I share my observations on my briefly car-free life for the benefit of other Portlanders who might be on the fence about buying or replacing a car. Are car-sharing services really cheaper than owning a car? How convenient could they possibly be? Do the vendors offer plans, vehicles and locations that fit my lifestyle, when and where I need them? What if I don’t own a smartphone? What if I have to haul four kids home from a muddy cross-country meet across town? These were some of my questions. Today and tomorrow, you will learn the answers to these and more.

Part 1: My week with Zipcar: Habits formed and not broken

As a wet-weather transportation experiment, I committed to using only Zipcars for any driving I did for one week in November. For seven days, I would ride my bike as I normally do, walk when I normally walk, but only drive a Zipcar when my transportation needs included a personal vehicle. This meant that friends could not pick me up, nor could my husband drive me anywhere. This meant that if I needed to haul a yard of bark chips, or help my friend move, if I needed to attend a three-hour cross country meet or visit my 99-year old grandma on her birthday, I would do it with a Zipcar. If I wanted to get somewhere during a storm, in the middle of the night or far away, I would have to plan for it — and pay for it!

In preparation, I signed up online for the “Wheel Deal” monthly plan – it seemed to make the most sense for my expected sporadic usage. At $24.99 per month, the idea of paying for something that I might or might not use was tough for me, but I took the salesperson’s advice and then immediately entered an Outlook calendar reminder to cancel it after the experiment was over. The per-hour rates were cheaper this way, and, luckily, I had a Chinook Book. Inside was a coupon for $75 of free driving credits. I was sure I wouldn’t get anywhere close to $75 worth of driving in one measly week, but welcomed the savings nevertheless.

My Driving Diary

Sunday: I reserved my first Zipcar. The process was simple enough. I logged on to the website and chose a location 3 blocks from my house. The available cars included a modest 4-door and a more expensive van. I selected the car, entered my pick-up and drop-off times and noted the estimated cost – $8.63 for my half-hour physical therapy appointment, plus an hour travel time. I gave myself plenty of cushion, it being my first time. Printing the reservation, as suggested on the website, was the hardest part due to my spotty home wireless connectivity and lack of ink in my printer.

Monday: I arrived at the car’s location ten minutes early. I slid my member card across the scanner at the front windshield and the car emitted a welcoming beep. I climbed in and was driving within seconds. There were no special buttons to push or codes to enter. I arrived at my appointment early. Afterwards, as I was preparing to return home, Zipcar sent me a text letting me know that I could pay for extra time if if I needed it. (Thanks, Zipcar.) But I was on time, something I am even more vigilant about when the late fine is $50! I parked, got out of the car and slid my card across the scanner again to end the reservation. First usage complete!
  • Getting used to it: The previous driver was much shorter than I. I know it is a petty complaint, but it sucks to have to adjust mirrors and seats while driving in the rain at night.
Tuesday: I attend a Spanish class across town Tuesday nights. It seems a shame to pay for not only my ride to class, but also the two hours the car sits in the parking lot. But taking the bus or biking would take too long on a dark November night, and my eldest daughter had decided to join me this time. I needed to maintain flexibility, given her packed schedule, which meant added time to my reservation. I left early to pick her up from her track workout, increasing the cost by a few dollars, and then we stopped for dinner between track and class. Again, I paid for the privilege of a guaranteed ride home. After all was said and done, the evening’s transportation costs added up to $11.52.
  • Combining errands: I asked myself if it was worth the extra few bucks to make extra stops and consolidate trips. Should I wait and make a separate trip by bicycle, when it would be “free”? I found myself sighing wistfully as I passed by Fred Meyers that night on the way home. Was I secretly waiting until I had the use of my own car again?
Friday: I made a reservation Thursday at work and had to guess at how long I would want the car. I had an afternoon meeting with a friend, but I could bike to that. My family had signed up to volunteer at a fundraiser for the high school ski team in the evening, and my husband and I had a tentative date-night across town. I wasn’t sure if our date was written in pencil or pen, so booking the car forced us to solidify our plans. The busy day’s driving cost me $20.30!
  • Lost and found: When I returned the Zipcar that night, I accidentally left a pair of skis in the trunk. When I realized my mistake, I called Zipcar. Luckily, I had three hours to go retrieve them without incurring any charge. My husband, however, once left something in a Zipcar and had to pay to access the car the next day to pick up his parcel! FYI: Users are also responsible for parking meters and tickets.
Saturday: I waited until the last minute to make a reservation for another fundraiser we were attending. I searched for a car for a 5:30 pm departure, and found that the closest was more than a half mile away. I was bummed. But I rethought it and changed the start time. The neighborhood car would be returned at 6 and was available! Hallelujah! We walked to the parking lot and waited. The earlier users returned the car exactly at 6 pm. It worked out nicely after all.

Sunday: By the end of the week, the reservation and pick-up routines were rote. My Sunday afternoon reservation to go see a movie with a girlfriend was pleasantly uneventful. Isn’t there a saying: if you do something for seven days, it becomes a habit?
  • Disincentive to have fun: That irksome pay-as-you-go mentality hung over my head as I tried to enjoy myself that night. The cost of the movie, without popcorn or soda, was $10. Add the car and the total more than tripled to $35.38. With entertainment “prices” like these, I might become a hermit!

The Bottom Line

During my seven-day experiment, I used 18 hours of vehicle time, drove approximately 48.2 miles on five separate reservations and incurred $122.65 in charges (which includes the monthly fee, but not the application fee or the discount for my coupon). That works out to $6.81 per hour, $2.54 per mile, $24.53 per trip or $17.52 per day.

In comparison, a monthly Trimet pass costs $100. Riding my 10-year old bike is practically free. Walking is definitely free. Calculating the cost of owning my two unfashionable cars is less straightforward. Zipcar assumes car ownership is based on a loan, with interest. They estimate the monthly cost, which includes insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, to be $807. I have always bought my cars for cash, so the formula that models my situation replaces the loan and interest with the cost of the car divided by its likely lifespan. My actual monthly cost for two cars, both significantly shabbier than the car Zipcar uses as an example, is about $384. If I were to use Zipcar exclusively at the same rate I used it for my experimental week, I would spend about $415 on my current plan. Zipcar offers other plans. They estimate the cost for those who “drive a lot” is $309 per month, “a fair amount” $144 per month, and “not much” $32 per month.

Not unlike the American Automobile Association, many middle-class Americans, and my mother, Zipcar makes assumptions about what kind of a car people should drive. But for a subset of Americans, me included, cars are not thrones but convenience-enhancers. I believe they should be safe, clean and well-maintained, but driven until they puke engine parts. My standards don’t fit the image sold by commercial entities, and so their estimates are hard to take seriously in my reality.

What I Learned

  • I drive more than I thought I did. According to Zipcar, I drive “a lot”! I may not drive far or long, but it turned out that I do start up that engine often enough.
  • Owning a car is like having health insurance. You pay every month for the security and assurance of having it when you need it. Because I live very close to the places I find important to visit (family, grocery store, school, coffee shops), my “transportation insurance” (aka 1998 Honda Civic) ends up having both a low “premium” (monthly cost of unsexy car) and a low “copay” (per-usage cost).
  • Multiple passengers made me feel better about Zipcar’s value. The comparison between one bus ticket and four tilted the scale for convenience and price.
  • Renting a car by the hour made me plan further in advance. I was also less likely to make spur-of-the-moment changes, like stopping for a coffee or taking the long way home. In fact, the urgency I felt in returning the car “on time” cut short a few conversations – I felt less inclined to shoot the bull with the receptionist at my PT appointment, or get to know my fellow students after Spanish class. When I am paying per hour, I am much more aware of the value of my time — because it no longer belongs to me.

Zipcar vs. Car2go, Part II: Freewheelin’ but Fretful with Car2go

Week two of my carlessness experiment commenced during a gloomy, drippy November. I had signed up for a Car2go account at the Komen Race for the Cure Expo, where they were offering memberships free of the customary, one-time $35 initiation fee. I planned to use only Car2go for all motorized travel for seven days in order to evaluate how the service fit into my life. Having just completed one week using only Zipcar for all of my automobile needs, I looked forward to no threatening late fees, no reservations and what appeared to be a less structured and less stressful car-share program.

a Car2go in Portland
With the ubiquitous, bunny-like white and blue Smart cars proliferating the streets, I felt secure that the Car2go model would easily provide for my minimal driving needs, and possibly cost less than Zipcar. The Car2go model is very different from Zipcar. They charge by the minute, with per-hour and per-day maximums, but the home-run feature of this structure is that you can claim any Car2go car you see on the street and deposit it anywhere within the Portland “home area,” without reservations or deadlines. It’s like a teenager’s dream date: spontaneous, fecund and curfew-free.

Before the week began, I excitedly browsed the webpage to get familiar with the system. I was the perfect candidate for this service: I live in the “home area” and all my regular destinations are also within it. But right away, I realized I was at a distinct disadvantage: I don’t own a smartphone! To take advantage of the free-form, no-planning-required platform, I would need to be able to search for a Car2go at the moment I needed it. My 6-year old dumb-phone couldn’t do that.

My fantasies of picking up available vehicles like drunk frat boys in a singles bar faded a bit, but I determined to make the best of it. I would use Car2go’s toll-free customer service that finds nearby cars, or plan in advance from my computer as best I could. Hope springs eternal! But sadly, I found over the next few days that even the somewhat diluted buzz I was feeling proved to be misplaced.

My Car2go driving diary

Tuesday: At 11:00 am, I was at home looking online for a Car2go vehicle nearby. I was shocked to find that my inner-southeast neighborhood, a supposed Mecca for progressive transportation users and providers, was instead a black hole on the Car2go locator map. There was not a single car within a mile of my house! Could it be that people drove these cars to work and left them all downtown?
Maybe my neighbors all ride bikes and don’t need Car2go vehicles. I found it weird and disorienting. I didn’t need the car until 5:45 pm for a class that night. Miraculously, a Car2go car appeared on the map only a block from my house at 5:30. My daughter and I hurriedly packed our bags and rushed out the door. I was afraid it would disappear in the 5 minutes it would take us to get there. When I got to the corner and saw its iconic blue and white paint job through the blur of passing rush-hour traffic, a rush of relief filled me. I crossed the street and gratefully swiped my card on the windshield of the golfcart-like vehicle.

I got in. Their cramped outward appearance doesn’t penetrate to the inside. The seating and headroom feel adequate and normal in most ways. Because I couldn’t figure out how to push the seat forward so I could put my heavy backpack in the small “trunkette,” I strained my back lifting it through the gap between the two front seats. Finally, engine running, handbrake released, mind open, I was ready to partake of the Car2go experience. With eager anticipation, I pressed on the gas. The moment of expected elation suddenly metamorphosed into something horribly disturbing.
I pulled out, making the first point in a three-point U-turn – the car’s small size allows this even on narrow side streets – and I came very close to slamming into the opposite curb! The foot brake was as stiff as a brick. With no response at first, I had to stomp on it with the force of a gorilla to keep from hitting the obstacle in front of me. I sat there stunned. Then I swore for a few minutes. Then I got over my shock and drove cautiously on.

Unfortunately, the trip did not improve much from there. The Daimler Fortwo’s “automated manual” transmission switches gears like a manual transmission, but without a clutch. It pitched us forwards and backwards as the car switched gears, like mariners on a windy sea, and my off-color language began to simulate that of a sailor.

My class happens to be situated at the exact edge of the Car2go territory. I crossed my fingers that there were very few users that far out, parked and logged off the clock. When class got out at 8:30 pm, my gamble paid off – the car was still there. I drove home and parked it right outside my front door, smug in the knowledge that I would have an easy time for an early morning appointment the next day.

Wednesday: But the next morning, it was gone. I turned on my ancient computer to search for another vehicle while I ate breakfast. The closest was only two blocks away at 7 a.m., but by 7:30 a.m. it, too, disappeared from the map. I set my sights on another, half a mile away. My daughter and I drove one mile to the orthodontist. I took the risk of logging off, but no one came looking for it during the 20 minute appointment, and we were able to log back in and drive to her school. I left it there, and walked to my optometrist appointment a few blocks away, relieved to not have to count on an ethereal car that anyone could just come and take without notice. How anxiety-provoking!

Thursday: I was walking home from work and it was taking longer than I had anticipated. I was late for a school meeting. It started to rain. My feet hurt. This was exactly the kind of situation I had envisioned where a well-placed Car2go car would come to my rescue, absolving itself for its transitory and capricious nature. I was on the lookout. If my own special Car2go vehicle were to appear on the street in front of me, I vowed, I would forgive it for deserting me the day before. Alas, Car2go did not swoop down, blue and white cape fluttering in the impending storm. Without a smartphone, I couldn’t quickly search for that much-needed relief, so I marched forth, feeling abandoned by my supposed four-wheeled hero. I guessed I wouldn’t be falling in love that night.

Friday: Walking home from my daughter’s school, one mile away, I thought again about trying to use the service, impromptu. I tried the Car2go customer service phone number, hoping they would be able to look up my location and send me to a nearby vehicle. I waited on hold as I covered three blocks and decided instead, to call my 12-year-old daughter and ask her to look it up on her iPod. She was able to direct me to a car within 3 blocks – in the wrong direction.

Saturday: My infatuation with Car2go had turned into fretful anxiety. I found myself dreading leaving the house. I had nightmares about not being able to get anywhere, not being able to find a car, not being able to count on a transportation option I have taken for granted for so long. I cringed at the thought of having to look for a car, expecting that one would not be available. It was simply “NOT KNOWING” that drove me crazy. Like a jealous cuckold, I spent far too much time worrying about where “my” car was and when it would come back.

That night on a short trip out to dinner with my husband, the Fortwo bucking like an unbroken stallion, I suddenly exclaimed, “I can’t wait for the day when I will never have to drive one of these #@$%&@ cars again!” I silently apologized to the little beast. I felt like I had kicked a dog.

But like an unneutered canine, the car inevitably disappeared during the course of an hour and a half meal. I was annoyed, but I had to admit, it impressed me. Obviously, people use these cars. They are in high demand. As my husband and I walked towards home, I concluded that the service must work well for a lot of people, or else my little rascal would have sat, faithfully awaiting my return on the little side street where I had tried to hide it. You can’t hide from GPS.

Running the numbers on Car2go: Affordable, if not accessible

a Car2go in Austin
At 38 cents per minute, I spent a grand total of $30.78 for my week of Car2go service. I made 7 trips over the course of seven days. These consisted of one round trip, one trip with multiple stops, and one one-way trip. I was in the car for 81 minutes and traveled a total of 17 miles. That comes out to $1.81 per mile, $4.40 per day, or about $12.31 per round-trip equivalent. The monthly cost, if this week is representative, would be about $123.12. This is a bargain compared to the cost of owning a car – even my old, paid-off cars cost about $384 (for both) or $230 per month to maintain and fill-up the nicer one.

Because I only paid for the time I was actively using the car, my costs were far lower than those of the previous week with Zipcar. Car2go’s $1.81 cost per mile is still 40 percent lower than Zipcar’s $2.54.

Granted, I drove fewer miles during my Car2go week. But consider this: I couldn’t use Car2go like I used Zipcar, or like I use my own car.  The service just isn’t set up that way. I was thwarted a few times in my attempts, so ended up not driving as much as I normally would. Car2go allows users to reserve a car, free of charge, for 15 minutes at a time. I didn’t take advantage of this option, in part, because I lacked that smartphone internet connection.

In my mind, the Car2go service is more appropriately contrasted with riding the bus. Both are location-specific, opportunistic, and transitory in nature, very unlike owning a car. A Trimet pass costs $100 per month, making the price of my Car2go usage very attractive in comparison. However, I would bet that anyone who depends on Car2go as their only vehicle, also uses Trimet consistently. Car2go is a supplement, not a substitute.

The bottom line on Car2go: Proof that I am not cool

As my experimental week progressed, I learned that Car2go vehicles were close to my home in the evenings, and clustered downtown during the day. I also learned early on that trying to plan ahead was fruitless. This alone forced a major shift in my perspective.  I like to know, well in advance, where and how and when I will be moving from place to place. It affects how I dress, what I carry, and which errands I combine. But with Car2go, I couldn’t know until the very instant I was ready to walk out the door. The cars moved like phantom ships, appearing and disappearing from the online map as people partook of their services and discarded them. I never quite got used to it.

These cars seem to be built for urban fun: For going out on the town, meeting friends at bars, and getting home after the buses stop running. Apparently, my life has very little “fun.” Car2go cars embody the people I imagine to be their clientele – freewheeling, spontaneous and on the go. They probably don’t have kids – the two-seater wouldn’t accommodate it.

My week with Car2go gave me a glimpse of the path not taken – the cool one, the childless one with an active nightlife and ultimate flexibility. Car2go’s low cost seems like it would fit right into this lifestyle. But for the path I did choose in life, Car2go’s psychological cost kept me up at night. Could I count on it to get me to my appointment the next morning? To commit to me in my moment of need? Like a neighborhood cat who “belongs” to whoever feeds him, Car2go vehicles give themselves away to stranger after stranger, whimsically cavorting with whoever wants to play, abandoning their last user without a parting glance.

I may take comfort in Car2go’s warm, dry interior on a cold, winter night, but I can’t expect to see it in the morning.

The experiment concludes: Winners don’t take all

After a two-week experiment of living as if I did not own a car, I know so much more than the facts I unearthed on the internet about Portland’s Car2go and Zipcar car-share programs. Beyond the rate structures and locator maps is a wealth of “getting it” that only experience can convey.

I thought that my two weeks would allow me to compare Zipcar and Car2go, one against the other. I thought I would declare one of the two programs a ‘winner.’  What I actually discovered is that the two programs are incomparable – they are night and day, apples and oranges, cats and dogs. Each could easily fill-in a different empty spot in my imagined carless life. In fact, if I try to replicate the level of efficiency, speed and convenience that I now have as a self-described “infrequent” driver, both services would be necessary. But that’s not all. To truly live the life I want to live, I would have to add a trusty bicycle, a versatile wardrobe (especially shoes), and the truly faithful public service: TriMet.

If I were to give up car ownership, I am in a good place to do so with few limitations. Even the combined cost of a monthly bus pass, Car2go and Zipcar memberships, annual bike tune-ups and a good pair of walking shoes ends up being more or less affordable. But let’s face it – I am comfortably middle-aged. I value my time perhaps more than my money. It takes time to deal with reservations and memberships. Racing to return cars on time adds pressure, threatening my ability to move leisurely through my weekly routine.

Assigning a dollar figure to each minute I spend enjoying life is not something I am willing to do. It is a stress I can literally afford to live without. I am a committed bike commuter and walker, but I am still, underneath it all, a car addict! Maybe it’s a low level dependency, but my brain chemistry demands predictability, dependability, instant gratification and control. My fix – a well-aged shot of Honda Civic – provides the chemical key to those synapses. It would take a serious round of detox to convert me completely.