The C Is for Crank

Josh wrote earlier this week about the "share economy"—the idea that access is more important than ownership when it comes to things like cars, tools, or bikes. (The axiom of the share economy is: "You don't want the drill, you want the hole"—or, "You don't want the car, you want the ride.") 

Although I don't agree with Josh that the share economy should necessarily extend to areas like charitable giving—I may have very specific reasons for giving to one environmental group over another, and may be less likely to give if my contributions go into a single "environmental" pool that includes everything from, say, the Sierra Club to EarthFirst!—I am a huge evangelist for sharing, through services like Zipcar, my P-Patch (which shares tools, water, and other resources), and, lately, the carsharing service Car2Go. 

Seattle Times tech writer Brier Dudley reviewed Car2Go this week, and found it "handy but limited and pricey."

The service, he notes, "ended up costing more than I expected—much more than a bus ride—and availability isn't predictable enough to count on the service for important appointments."

Dudley also dings Car2Go for "shafting residents and businesses with aggressive parking charges and sanctimonious transportation schemes, while letting Car2Go use public parking spaces for next to nothing."

("Sanctimonious transportation schemes" appears to refer to the fact that the city now charges for parking based on demand instead of subsidizing cheap parking with general tax dollars, and has belatedly started backfilling decades of neglect for things like sidewalks and bike lanes. What's privilege? Sanctimony turned upside-down). 

And he whines that Car2Go isn't really eco-friendly, although he doesn't back that claim up with any data, saying only, "I don’t buy the eco rhetoric about car-sharing services."

I guess I just don't get the outrage. Drive your car if you like; ride the bus if you prefer—but what's the harm in a for-profit, unsubsidized transportation option that makes it easier to get from Point A to Point B?

Oy. So much to respond to. So let's start with the first claim: Car2Go (and, by implication, car-sharing services generally) is a bad deal because buses are cheaper, but it should also be more universally available so you can always count on finding a car nearby.

Not only are those two goals in fundamental conflict—buses are cheap in part because they aren't universally available; on-demand bus service would obviously increase fares—but if the cars were actually everywhere, that would exacerbate Dudley's second complaint: That Car2Go's vehicles take up space that "belongs" to private car owners. 

Let's concede, for the moment, that parking is fairly priced. (It isn't, but that's a subject for another Crank.) The "sweetheart deal" claim would be true if two conditions were met. First, Car2Go would indeed have to be paying below market price ("next to nothing") for parking. And second, they would have to be exclusively taking up metered parking spaces—one per car, which is the basis for Dudley's assertion that the company isn't paying its fair share. 

"If Car2Go’s current Seattle fleet were all parked at once in metered spots, it would take up 3.4 percent of the city’s on-street, paid parking," Dudley writes.

The reality (as Dudley ultimately had to acknowledge, in a parenthetical update) is that Car2Go pays market rate for the metered parking spaces it uses: $1,330 per car up front, plus any extra meter time, payable at the end of the year. And Dudley's nightmare scenario is a red herring anyway—most of Car2Go's "home area" isn't even metered. No one has proposed banning boats because Lake Union would fill up if every boat in Seattle decided to dock there simultaneously. 

Moreover, Car2Go's SmartFor2 cars take up less space than a regular sedan—about half as much on-street space—and far less than, say, a Hummer. (Since Seattle's metered spaces are all electronic now, each metered block holds the number of cars that can fit on that block, as opposed to a set number of spaces). Yet folks who are outraged that Car2Go cars are allowed to park for "free" (actually, users pay for their parking as part of their annual membership and per-minute charges) seem less than exercised when a Humvee takes up the equivalent of three SmartCar parking spaces. 

I guess I just don't get the outrage. Drive your car if you like; ride the bus if you prefer—but what's the harm in a for-profit, unsubsidized transportation option that makes it easier to get from Point A to Point B?

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