Afternoon Jolt

The city council's transportation committee today unanimously approved  SDOT legislation that would expand car-sharing in Seattle. The legislation is now cued up for consideration by full council next Tuesday, January 20. 

Currently, one company, Car2Go, has all 500 available free-floating parking permits (permits that allow car share members to park for free in paid and residential parking zones). SDOT estimates that each car makes six trips a day, which makes us "a great market" SDOT director Scott Kubly told the council today. It's four trips a day in DC, he said by way of comparison. It also has the potential to ease parking demand, ease congestion, and help the city reduce carbon emissions by getting people to forgo their single occupancy vehicles. Car2Go reportedly has almost 59,000 members in the region with about three to four percent saying they've given up a personal vehicle. 

The proposal that committee chair Tom Rasmussen—along with council members Mike O'Brien and Jean Godden—enthusiastically approved today would allow up to 3,000 permits (750 per company for four companies). More likely, however, SDOT estimates an initial expansion would be smaller because only two companies in the country (Car2Go and BMW's DriveNow) have free-floating car models. (BMW told me in December that they were eager to come to Seattle.) Additionally, the legislation would only allow a company to have the 750 permits if they served the entire city.

Car2Go reportedly has almost 59,000 members in the region with about three to four percent saying they've given up a personal vehicle. 

Car2Go will have to serve the whole city because the ordinance mandates that if a company has been operating in Seattle for two years, like Car2Go, they have to serve the whole city. (Currently Car2Go stops short—only going as far north as Northeast 125th Street and as far south as Orcas Street in Hillman City). So, that's 750 permits in 2015 right of the bat. But SDOT expects any new car share company, BMW's DriveNow specifically, to start out smaller as they grow their customer base.

The new rule also increases the free-floating parking permits from the current $1,330 to $1,730. The $400 increase comes from raising the residential parking portion of the fee, known as Restricted Parking Zone (RZP) permits, by $500, from $200 to $700; the fee on the paid parking spots will simultaneously drop by $100, from $1,030 to $930. The companies are forced to "true up" at the end of the year on paid parking spots, which Car2Go did in 2013 to the tune of $183,000.

The extra $400 total, for about $450,000 in new revenue, is earmarked to pay for related SDOT programs such as promoting alternatives to single occupancy vehicles; reducing auto emissions; freeing up more curb space, and providing more transportation options for low-income people.

How does adding more cars to Seattle's streets do any of that? SDOT says getting people to share cars fits right into the grander SDOT goals because with more people sharing cars, there are ultimately less cars overall on the streets and less cars competing for parking. (Again, Car2Go boasts that three to four percent of its members say they've given up a personal vehicle.) Furthermore, SDOT reports that Car2Go cars switch spots every two hours (or 2.5 hours in RPZs) while taking up just seven tenths of of one percent of the city's paid parking spots.

SDOT Director Scott Kubly & SDOT staffer Kiersten Grove

This is all to say today's winner is SDOT Director Scott Kubly. Initially, council member Rasmussen—in sync with Car2Go, which questioned the increased fee at council today—had been second-guessing the need to increase the fee. Rasmussen was pushing back on the fee's supposed relationship to SDOT's broader mission for a "car free or car lite lifestyle" as Kubly put it today.

From Car2Go's POV, the proposed fee increase is like asking a vegan restaurant to pay a special health care tax.

The increase sailed through today, though, with Rasmussen himself pointing out that the street value of having access to all 33 RPZs could actually be much higher than $600, (and certainly higher than the current $200, I'd point out). Here's why: Residents pay $32.50 a year for RPZ access. Back of the envelope math puts the value at $1,073 (33 x $32.50). Of course, each car share car isn't regularly parking in all 33 zones, thus the middle ground at $600. The total $1730 for the free floating license overall would be comparable to car share permits in other cities: It's $2,980 in DC; $1380 in Calgary; $1318 in Portland; and $873 in Austin.

However, I expect Car2Go, a subsidiary of Daimler AG, to continue raising questions at full council. For example, if they're doing something the city wants (providing alternatives to a personal car) why are they the ones being asked to foot the bill for transit and transportation programs? It's like asking a vegan restaurant to pay a special health care tax. An amendment was added to today's legislation that forces SDOT to report back in September with data on the bigger goals and justify the program's relationship to the fee.

In addition to going with Kubly's fee increase, the committee also signed off on another aspect of the proposal: Giving the SDOT director—that'd be Kubly—the discretion to increase the number of permits starting in 2016 without council approval. The council was giving up its authority so Kubly could "go wild," Rasmussen joked.  

The other reason Kubly gets today's Jolt winner: The legislation directs SDOT to study the idea of giving Orca cards access to car share cars. Kubly has been idealistically pitching the long-shot idea of a universal transit options card since first applying for the SDOT job last summer. The transportation committee nudged that idea forward today. "I'm jut real excited about the possibility of looking at Orca," council member Jean Godden said, "because it does seem to me that the council was prioritizing making transportation choices, such as transit and car sharing, as convenient and easy as possible. This is an opportunity to look at a  seamless situation."

Council member O'Brien praised SDOT for including low-income access as part of the program, but wanted to see more details. The only thing the legislation council moved forward today said on that score was that "Free floating car sharing parking" would "Provide low-income access to transportation options." SDOT says they will have more specifics in the September report. 

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