On Saturday I needed to pick up a bunch of houseplants from a home improvement store and it seemed like it would be a hassle to carry them safely on my Fresh Air bicycle trailer. Also, after a lot of procrastinating, I recently got my Chicago Card Plus, which provides access to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and I-GO Car Sharing, replaced after the old one cracked and stopped functioning months ago. So this seemed like a good opportunity to try out my new card by checking out a vehicle from I-GO, the nonprofit service operated by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
When I logged onto the I-GO website, I noticed that there were a couple of locations near my home in Logan Square with standard Toyota Prius hybrid cars. I-GO also offers plug-in electric hybrid Priuses, which they say can get 100 mile-per-gallon for trips under forty miles. This results in up to two-thirds lower fuel costs and emissions than the standard Prius, I-GO says, but currently all of the plug-in hybrids are located downtown. The service also recently added several Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan LEAF electric cars to their fleet.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn plugs in an I-GO electric car at the launch ceremony at Daley Plaza. Image courtesy of I-GO.
I thought it would be interesting to try driving a standard hybrid for the first time, so I signed up for one parked in the lot by the Logan Square Mega Mall at 2500 N. Milwaukee. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t check out a plug-in hybrid or an all-electric just yet, since the minor learning curve for the standard hybrid was a bit tricky for me.
Arriving at the Mega Mall, I couldn’t resist buying an elote, Mexican-style corn-on-the-cob with mayo, margarine, cheese and chile, from the lady who always parks her cart at this location. I always get my elote with the kernels cut off and served in a cup like a corn sundae. I sat on a parking stop on the asphalt in the broiling heat and enjoyed my snack, killing five minutes before my checkout time kicked in.
This was probably a bad idea, because by the time I placed my card on the sensor on the windshield of the Prius to unlock the door and sat inside the blazing hot car, elote grease was seeping out of my pores and my brain was not functioning optimally. I opened the glove box to retrieve they key and was amused to find that the key was a plastic rectangle you insert into the dashboard.
I was able to start the engine by pushing a round button on the dash, but perhaps due to the heat and my elote coma, I had trouble figuring out how to put the vehicle in gear. I tried different combinations of pressing the park button and pushing down the brake while shifting. I perused the manual but it wasn’t much help.
Finally I called the customer service number on the back of my card. The guy on the phone was very patient and helpful, but after 15 minutes of trying to talk me through it as I sat in the hot car, we still hadn’t figured out why I couldn’t get the car to shift out of neutral. I’m still not sure whether the problem was something wrong with the vehicle or just me being slow on the intake. I finally asked him to transfer my rental to a different car in another location and refund the time I’d spent so far, which he graciously did.
The only other nearby car available was also a standard Prius, a few blocks away at 2402 N. Washtenaw, next to Haas Park. This time the car didn’t actually have a slot in the dashboard in which to stick the key, which confused me for a bit, but then I saw a sticker on the dashboard instructing me to touch the key to the round power button. And whether it was luck or a better-functioning vehicle, this time I had no problem shifting gears.
Soon I was on my way with the air conditioning blasting and some soothing music on the sound system, my earlier frustrations behind me. As I cruised to the big-box store in the nearly silent vehicle, lyrics from the hard-boiled rap tune “Whole Foods Parking Lot” by Fog and Smoke echoed in my head:
I’m ridin’ slow in my Prius
All leather, tinted windows… you can’t see us
Everybody’s trying to park, you can feel the tension
I’m in electric mode… can’t even hear the engine (Shhhhhhh)
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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