Thoughts on car sharing and the folding car


Rendering of the MIT CityCar by Franco Vairani. Post updated 9:57 to add commentary on parking. 

This morning, RelayRides will announce it is updating its system on how neighbors share cars. Before, only cars with OnStar and smart card systems could be used (like how I-GO and ZipCar operate now). The change is that anyone with a car can sign up to lend it, for as little as $5 per hour, using a key exchange: the owner and the renter arrange to transfer the key.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in practice. I’m going to convince my roommates and friends to sign up their cars. Individual car ownership does not bode well for our society, economy, and environment. The kinds of cars we own have a less significant impact than how we drive them. How we drive is what makes our car culture. The one that costs us more than we can afford, pollutes the environment, and sustains a sedentary lifestyle.

We got an advance press release from RelayRides talking about the advantages of this system over fleet systems (I-GO and ZipCar) and OnStar-like systems:

RelayRides is enabling drivers to participate in car sharing in the easiest possible way through a new key exchange program. Key exchange is a simple way for renters and drivers everywhere to quickly begin participating in RelayRides’ car sharing service by simply arranging for owners to give the keys to the renter. The new service allows consumers to enroll instantly and make money from their vehicles or rent a vehicle at some of the lowest prices available in the U.S.

RelayRides member Curtis Chong has made over $5,300 since enrolling his 2006 Honda Civic in RelayRides about nine months ago. “The last time I checked Kelley Blue Book, my Civic was worth about $4,800,” said Chong. “Thanks to RelayRides, I got a free car, and it continues to print cash—plus, I feel great that I’m helping out a neighbor! What’s not to like?”

Aside from hyperbolic quotes, peer-to-peer car sharing seems like it could make a difference in feeling the need to own a car. Probably not as much difference as a compact built environment with diverse services would make, though.

This post was the end of an “Internet tangent” that started on the Innovative Transportation Technologies website, which has been around since 1997, and then went to an article in the New York Times about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab’s CityCar, which is going into production. What about this car is worth mentioning if I just said that it’s not the car that matters, but how we use it? The design philosophy behind the car’s development was about changing how people in car cultures use cars:

As originally envisioned by Mr. Mitchell and his lab’s students, the CityCar was less a vehicle than a system and set of ideas that could be applied to many kinds of vehicles, including scooters. The lab’s objective is to preserve the advantages of individual transportation while minimizing drawbacks like congestion, parking scarcity and tailpipe emissions. The electric cars fold together like shopping carts. They communicate over a central network, much like bicycles in share programs in major European capitals, to alert users where and when one might be available. Read the full article.

I don’t know much more about the program so I’m taking the author’s word that he’s describing correctly the team’s convictions. The connection to bike sharing also caught my eye. I still haven’t experienced bike sharing, even though it’s available nearby in Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m looking forward to it, but first Mayor Emanuel needs to announce some details about it. Such an event is 10 weeks overdue now.

In other news, I-GO will soon offer its customers 100% electric cars, the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi MiEV. Not a solution to reliance on fossil fuels, or the high costs to society of crashes and stress, but I think it’s a small step in the right direction.

The CityCar also addresses parking, the least productive use of land which we slater all over our cities. I was reading some articles from the New York Times’s new architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, and found this salient reference:

As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.” Yet we continue to produce parking lots, in cities as well as in suburbs, in the same way we consume all those billions of plastic bottles of water and disposable diapers.

These rules about minimum parking spaces have driven up the costs of apartments for developers and residents, damaged the environment, diverted money that could have gone to mass transit and created a government-mandated cityscape that’s largely unused.

Mayor Emanuel’s plan for an $2 tax on parking downtown won’t fix our congestion problems. Fewer parking spaces would have a greater effect on that, but city zoning codes (across the country) always mandate that developers install a minimum number of car parking spaces. And many zoning codes, Chicago’s included, mandate bike parking spaces. But they aren’t installed, or they aren’t built in useful ways or places.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on car sharing and the folding car”

  1. I’d be concerned about insurance.  Renting out your car is almost certainly prohibited by your insurance, so if the renter gets in an accident, you’re screwed

    1. RelayRides provides a policy for the renter that doesn’t interfere with your personal policy. From their website:

      “One of the ways we protect you is by providing insurance that covers you while your car is being rented by a RelayRides driver.  When things do happen, our policy provides both collision and liability coverage; your personal policy is not touched.”

      It’s a $1 million policy. 

    2. Here’s some more information about insurance:

      “There could be a snag with insurance. Most residential insurance doesn’t cover commercial activity in your car. Renting it out, even to neighbors, is commercial. However, in the two years of experience so far, it doesn’t seem that’s how insurance companies are treating the practice. Nobody has been dropped, Clark says. Still, three states, California, Oregon and Washington, have all passed laws to explicitly make peer-to-peer car sharing legal.”

      From Transportation Nation.

  2. I first read about RelayRides in a recent Wired magazine article (not available online, I believe) that was mainly about self-driving cars.
    The article made a good point about both of these developments. For either one of them to be successful we will have to revisit the way we think about cars and car ownership. Cars currently are marketed on the premise that the car of your choice will set you apart from all the other people on the road. In other words the car that you drive, and the way that you drive your car, defines you.
    What if that is no longer the case? What if you you rent your neighbors car and that car pretty much drives itself. How do you then define yourself while in the public space?

      1. Your acquaintances will know what kind of car you drive whether they ride in it or not because people want to know what you drive. I think in our culture the car you drive makes a huge difference in how people see you. Even if it’s completely subconscious. Funny that one of the examples of how you would use the RelayRide service is to pick up a date in a nice car. Yeah your date will be really impressed with your Porsche when you tell them it’s rented for $12 an hour

    1. Car manufacturers are now promoting cars as a platform, in which to connect to your smartphone, play music at the beach, and carry surfboards, things we do so often…

      Licensing of teenagers is declining. Teenagers nowadays prefer smartphones and chatting online to driving.

      Here’s an article from Florida about this:

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