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Car-Share Service Picking Up Speed
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Like many San Francisco residents, Bill Jackson finds it difficult to own a car in the city -- let alone two. While his wife needs a car each day to commute to her job on the Peninsula, Jackson relies on Muni to get to his job at Greatschools.net on Mission Street. Consequently, the family's second car was sitting idle on the street near his 22nd Street home most days.
"It was hard to find parking and expensive to keep for the use it was getting," he says, "so three years ago, we sold it."
That's when Jackson discovered it wasn't so easy being a one-car family. "I found myself not going to a lot of things I might have gone to before," he says, "especially in the South Bay or Peninsula, because it was just too difficult to get there using Cal-Train."
Finally this summer, Jackson found a solution to his transportation problem: City CarShare, a non-profit service started in March that rents cars by the hour to its members. City CarShare is funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with grants from several environmentally minded foundations, including San Francisco Beautiful, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Packard Foundation. Similar car-sharing programs are running in Seattle, Portland, and Chicago, and in Canada and Europe.
To join City CarShare, Jackson and other members pay a one-time refundable deposit of $300, an application fee of $25, and a monthly administrative fee of $10. Members pay $2.50 an hour (up to a $25 maximum) and 45 cents a mile (which includes gasoline) to drive the cars. The vehicles are housed in 11 parking lots and garages throughout the city, including the CPMC Davies Campus garage in Duboce Triangle, the New Mission Garage on 22nd Street, and the San Francisco General Hospital lot at the foot of Potrero Hill. The fees provide drivers with comprehensive insurance, so members must be screened for good driving records.
Now, when Jackson needs to drive to the South Bay, he reserves a car by calling City CarShare or logging onto their web site. Then he picks up the vehicle at the city-owned parking garage at Fifth and Mission, just a block from his office. An electronic device inside the car keeps track of mileage, and he must return the car clean and on time or he will incur extra charges. He's also responsible for paying any parking tickets.
"It's been flawless for me," says Jackson. "If you need a car once a month or so, this program makes a lot of sense. You're contributing to the environment, saving on parking, and making the streets of San Francisco less clogged."
City CarShare was 21/2 years in the planning by neighborhood activists and groups such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Urban Ecology, and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). District 8 supervisor Mark Leno also has been a strong supporter of the program, and his South of Market business Budget Signs was the first company to sign up for business use of City CarShare. So far, 10 businesses, including San Francisco School Volunteers, offer City CarShare vehicles to their employees, for off-site client meetings and appointments.
CarShare currently has 850 individual members enrolled, "with no slowdown in sight," according to co-director Kate White. "We're adding 25 members each week and one new vehicle per week. People are signing up much faster than we expected. In the next 10 to 15 years, we're hoping that 10 percent of the residents of the city, about 80,000 people, are members."
So far, the program has 31 vehicles -- primarily those spiffy, lime-green VW Bugs -- sporting the City CarShare logo. Luckily for Noe Valley residents, the two garages closest to the neighborhood also house larger cars, which members can use for those big hauls or family outings. At the New Mission Garage on 22nd Street between Valencia and Bartlett, members have access to silver, four-door Volkswagen Golfs. At the CPMC garage at 14th and Noe, members can arrange to pick up a silver Volkswagen Jetta station wagon.
White says the program has been adding a new pickup spot every month -- and the good news for Noe Valley is that a location is coming soon to the neighborhood, probably on 24th Street and probably by the end of the year.
A few months ago, Elizabeth Sullivan, who is co-director with White, talked about the program at an Upper Noe Neighbors meeting.
"People really liked the idea," says Sullivan. "Noe Valley is a great urban village and a good candidate for CarShare because residents can do many of their errands in the neighborhood so they don't need a car all the time."
Sullivan says that CarShare is currently considering having three vehicles available in the public parking lot on 24th Street near Radio Shack.
"The neighborhood has been very enthusiastic about that location because it is so centrally located," says Sullivan. "This is only our initial thought, though. The people we have heard from so far think it's a good location. We haven't received any objections so far, but we welcome suggestions for other locations."
If CarShare does come to 24th Street, 30th Street resident Lois Green will be thrilled to join the program. Any day now, Green is taking her 1979 VW Rabbit with leaking windows to the junkyard, or "happy hunting ground," as she calls it.
"Basically, all the driving I do is moving the car from one side of the street to the other on street-cleaning days," says Green, who takes public transportation to her job at the Environmental Protection Agency. "My car hasn't been reliable for a while, so I don't trust it for long trips. I've really been almost carless for a couple of years."
To White, Green looks like a perfect candidate for car-sharing.
"If you need a car daily, this program is not for you," says White. "But if you use a car only two or three times a month, this is great for you. So far, half of our members do not even use a car once a month, probably because they're not used to having a car, and the other half use a car a few times a month. No one uses a car more than one to two times a week."
For these sort of drivers, the program is worth the cost, she says. "On average, with gas, parking, car payments, maintenance, and insurance, people in San Francisco pay about $500 a month for their car. With City CarShare, they pay the $10 monthly flat fee along with whatever usage fees. If they use a car two times a month, it's about $40 in usage and the $10 flat fee. That means they're only paying $600 the entire year to use a car."
Still, if you own a car, White knows it's not an easy possession to part with.
"City CarShare is not forcing people to sell their cars," she says. "We're not trying to hit people over the head with this idea. We're interested in weaning them off their car dependency and seeing a car as a tool rather than something they own. We realize it's a big deal to give up your car. People are very involved with their cars."
White also cautions that with a person-to-car ratio of 25 to 1, "we need our members to be flexible and good planners. People can book a car up to three months in advance, so if you know you have an appointment with your therapist every other Tuesday from 7 to 8 p.m., it makes sense to plan ahead and book in advance."
Before he relocated to San Francisco from Denver, Kevin Larson, who lives at 18th and Noe, was hooked on owning a car. "Denver is a real car city," he says. "You need one to get around." But in San Francisco, he started taking mass transit to his job as a computer programmer, and after a couple of years of little use and many parking tickets, decided to sell his car. "To me, a car is a tool, a necessary evil," he says. "It gets me to the mall if there's a sale at Bloomingdale's, since we don't have a Bloomie's in San Francisco."
After many years of "relying on the kindness of strangers" when he needed a car, Larson jumped at the opportunity to join City CarShare. Now he rents one of the cars one or two days a month.
"I keep the car for a full day so I can do all my errands -- grocery shopping at Bell or Cala, going to the Target in Colma or to Costco. I rent a Jetta wagon when I do a Costco run because it's big enough to shlep all the 24-packs of toilet paper and paper towels," he laughs.
"It makes me feel good to be a part of this program," he says. "I'm not adding to the congestion of the streets or taking up a parking space. I'm not worried about road rage. I'm driving around in a VW Bug, and people think they're cute."
To suggest a new City CarShare location in Noe Valley, e-mail Elizabeth Sullivan at email@example.com. For information on becoming a member, visit the web site at www.citycarshare.org or call 415-995-8588.