Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Another example of DC's failures in transportation planning: carsharing

I forgot to disclose that I am a Zipcar member. We use it occasionally for its convenience. But when we want to use a car and we plan ahead, we rent cars from places at Union Station, because it's cheaper.

Still, it's very cool, and is part of a change in consumption patterns, called collaborative consumption. See "The Sharing Economy," from Fast Company. Car sharing is one of the first larger scale illustrations of this trend (as is bike sharing).

Also see the TBD piece on car ownership patterns in the DC region (not just DC), "Nearly 200,000 DC Households Survive Without Any Cars."

Zipcar on 6th Street SE
Zipcar lost out to new services for most of the spaces they use currently, even though they have the most members and users in DC of any service. So they are engaged in a media and advocacy campaign to get more spaces.

Mike DeBonis of the Post has a piece about it here, "Zipcar and fair prices for public spaces" and he makes good points about balancing revenue needs vs. helping innovative businesses to develop.

In 2005, I too was somewhat skeptical about giving "free" spaces on the street to carsharing programs like Zipcar and the then Flexcar service, because they were "for profit companies" "making money off the public space." See "Dr. Transit: Car Sharing in DC."

But later on, in October 2005, I had an epiphany, and realized that I missed the point, that the issue for residents is should car owners have more privileges that car users for the use of street spaces? I wrote about it here, "High Cost of Free* Parking Revisited and Car Sharing in DC." From the piece:

One of the DCist commenters mentioned the Arlington County Commuter website, in particular the section on Car Sharing, and the report (Arlington pilot carshare program first-year report) that Arlington produced based on their pilot study of this program. According to the Arlington website, various studies find these carsharing benefits:

• reduces car ownership,
• encourages more transit trips,
• reduces the number of cars on the road,
• reduces the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT),
• reduces pollution,
• saves gas, and
• provides for a more efficient use of parking spaces.

In DC, car owners pay $15/year for a residential parking space, for a space that DC evidently believes is worth $3,600, because that is the price set for bidding for control of parking spaces for carsharing services on the city's streets.

Research shows that each car in a carsharing service serves 10-20 members, and significantly reduces the number of cars owned by residents.

Given that there is a relatively scarce amount of parking space inventory in DC neighborhoods, especially rowhouse neighborhoods, where a typical car is about as wide as a rowhouse (so any house with more than one car puts extreme pressure on the inventory), carsharing should be encouraged, and the higher the price of a parking space to the carsharing company, the higher the price is for hourly use for members, which discourages people from joining. Maybe more people buy cars.

In the Arlington County Transportation Plan, reducing single occupancy vehicle use is a key priority. Therefore, each element of the plan supports this priority to the extent possible.

In the Parking and Curbside Management Element, use of shared cars would be prioritized over on street storage of privately owned cars. And the desire for revenue is balanced with broader transportation policy and preferred outcomes.

Clearly, this kind of nuanced focus is beyond DC's capacity.

Anyway, the other bidders would have screamed, but if it had been an RFP process rather than just a cash bid, points would have been allocated for the number of users and the cost/hour for participation. Obviously, this would have favored companies already in active business in this market, and the new competitors would have screamed, but hey, that's the way these bids usually work.

Another criterion could have been the value of the car sharing network in which residents can also use carsharing vehicles while traveling in other cities.

The problem here is it functions somewhat like "ownership" of "gates" at airports does. Not having access to gates is what economists call "a barrier to entry" on the part of new competitors.

But by just making it an out and out auction just allows better financed competitors to pay out money to hurt a competitor without necessarily providing benefits for DC residents who choose to join carsharing services.

What I probably would recommend is this:

1. Add more public parking spaces dedicated to car sharing to accommodate the new companies entering the market.

2. Charge more for the spaces, maybe. That's another issue. The point is to balance revenue while supporting better mobility choices.

I just think it's incredibly imbalanced to charge a lot of money for these spaces, which benefit DC residents who don't own a car just as much as the $15/year residential parking permits benefit residents who do own a car, albeit at the benefit of for profit companies. (Interestingly, in some other communities, there are not for profit carsharing services, such as in Toronto and Philadelphia.)

3. Every two years going forward, reallocate dedicated public parking spaces between the companies, based on the number of members of the various services. E.g., if the new services get more members, and Zipcar loses members, give the other services more spaces. Include criteria on the cost/hour for usage as part of the measurement criteria, to encourage the companies to compete on price.

4. But overall, promote carsharing as a mobility option, and add more dedicated parking spaces for it going forward, not just in commercial districts, but in residential areas as well.

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