Dude, share my car? A look at peer-to-peer car sharing

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[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Last year Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing company, really got my goat with its “Sometimes you just need a car” ad campaign, featuring images of people looking miserable while pedaling to a meeting or riding the bus to a music gig. Fact is, my friends and I do these things all the time, and cyclists and transit users make up a big chunk of the company’s customer base. Why insult your clientele?

But Zipcar did have a point. Even sustainable-transportation blackbelts can use an automobile now and then for road trips, hauling cargo or giving rides to friends and family. Zipcar and I-GO, operated by the local nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology, provide a great service to car-free Chicagoans by allowing us to include driving in our toolbox of travel options.

The new breed of peer-to-peer car-sharing companies takes a different approach by helping individuals rent directly from private car owners. This model may actually be a bit more eco-friendly, since it eliminates the need for the company to purchase a fleet of new vehicles and lease off-street parking spaces for them.

The peer-to-peer service Relay Rides, founded by Northwestern University grad Shelby Clark and based in San Francisco, opened in Chicago earlier this year and now operates in nineteen U.S. cities. Its competitor Getaround, also headquartered in San Francisco, launched here in September and currently serves Austin, San Diego and Portland, Oregon, as well. I recently called cofounder Jessica Scorpio to learn how the wheels of fortune spin.

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Green parking or greenwashing: can a downtown garage be eco-friendly?

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[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Every time I pedal downtown via the Kinzie Street protected bike lane I’m confronted by an oxymoron. At 60 West Kinzie stands an attractive, boxy structure covered with loosely arrayed rectangles of greenish glass, glittering in the sun. Piet Mondrian-inspired yellow panels accent the roofline and southwest corner, where they form a backdrop for twelve white corkscrew wind turbines arrayed in two columns. It’s the Greenway Self-Park, billed as “Chicago’s first earth friendly parking garage.” Its logo features a VW Bug with leaves blowing out of the tailpipes rather than noxious fumes.

Everyone agrees there are too many cars in downtown Chicago, so what could have possibly been sustainable about building this eleven-story garage, which accommodates 715 more of them? It opened in 2010, occupying valuable River North real estate, only a stone’s throw from several transit stations. There’s certainly nothing green about making it easy for, say, a guy from Naperville to drive solo to work every day in his Lexus, instead of taking Metra commuter rail.

Trying to keep an open mind, I check out the list of sustainable practices on the website, greenwayselfpark.com. It says the garage was constructed from “local and sustainable” building materials. The turbines were intended to generate enough electricity to light the building’s exterior. The building’s open-air layout eliminates the need for a ventilation system, which saves energy. A “daylighting” system causes the garage’s indoor lights to dim when there’s sufficient sunlight. Zipcar and I-GO car-sharing services rent spaces in the building, and there are six charging stations for electric cars, plus another six reserved spaces for hybrid vehicles. And, the website says, the garage has a green roof with rainwater cisterns for irrigation.

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Are Smart cars smart? The pros and cons of microcars

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[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

It’s no secret that I dislike automobiles, or rather Chicago’s over-dependence on them. Privately owned autos, especially big ones, contribute to all kinds of problems in our region, including traffic deaths, congestion, climate change, obesity and urban sprawl. Car parking gobbles up valuable land, with Chicago’s on-street parking alone occupying an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, not to mention the hundreds of acres used for parking lots. The first Mayor Daley carved up the city with expressways and allowed Louis Sullivan masterpieces to be razed for garages, and an eight-lane superhighway cuts off residents from one of our city’s greatest assets, the lake shore.

On the other hand, there are understandable reasons why Chicagoans might want to purchase an auto, as opposed to occasionally renting one or using a car-sharing service. These include long commutes to distant neighborhoods or suburbs that might be daunting by other modes, the ability to give rides to friends and family, the need to haul gear around town, road trips to Wisconsin and more. I do believe there’s such a thing as responsible car ownership, and it’s possible to include driving, along with walking, cycling, transit and cabs, in your toolbox of transportation modes.

But a large percentage of Chicago car trips involve only one or two occupants. So for those who feel they need to own a car, could two-seat “microcars” like the Smart car, a Mercedes-Benz product, help mitigate some of the harmful aspects of driving? These tiny vehicles, measuring about eight feet long by five feet wide, go against the grain of America’s traditional “bigger is better” mentality.

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My first time driving a hybrid vehicle from I-GO Car Sharing

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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.

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Shifting view of car ownership driving younger users to car sharing

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I-GO member Angel Collazo. Photo by Kimiteru Tsuruta

This post was contributed by Kimiteru Tsuruta, a grad student at Nortwestern’s Medill Journalism School. During his time in Tokyo, Tsurata was amazed by the efficiency and coverage of its public transit system. He has a B.A. in economics from the University of California, Irvine, and now covers Chicago’s transportation news with the Medill News Service. This piece originally appeared on Medill Reports.

Practicality and economics may be the main reasons increasing numbers of people use car-sharing services, but there also seems to be an underlying shift in how young people perceive car ownership.

“Car-sharing members tend to have attitude,” said Joseph Schwieterman, professor of public service and director of the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University. “They see their lifestyle choices not only as a matter of just convenience, but as a rejection of the notion that a privately owned vehicle is important.” Continue reading Shifting view of car ownership driving younger users to car sharing

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Chicago announces bike sharing vendor (updated)

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Cycling on a Capital BikeShare in  Washington, D.C. Photo by Michael Jantzen. 

Updated 11:18: The press release is now online. I’ve been trying to pay attention to the City Council live video feed and transcript, but I’m not sure if they’ve discussed the proposed ordinance yet.

Alta Bicycle Share and Public Bike System Co. were just announced on the Chicago Tribune’s website as the Chicago bike sharing operator and equipment vendor, respectively. From John Hilkevitch:

City Hall estimates the total capital and start-up costs at $21 million, adding that $18 million will be covered by federal funding aimed at improving air quality and easing traffic congestion [CMAQ] and the remaining $3 million will be provided by the city.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is set to introduce an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting seeking aldermanic approval to enter into an agreement with Alta Bicycle Share, officials said.

The losing entries were offered by Bike Chicago [also known as Bike and Roll] and its equipment provider, B-Cycle; and I-GO and its equipment providers, Tracetel and Schwinn, officials said.

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