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CITY SMART | Street Smart

Would Angelenos Go for Time Sharing on Wheels?

June 07, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you've ever borrowed a car from a cigar smoker, you might not want to read any further.

But otherwise, get a load of this idea for L.A.: car sharing, a kind of time share on wheels.

It would work like a co-op. Riders--ideally, no one who would stink up the car with cigars--share a fleet of vehicles scattered around town. A car could be as close as a few blocks from your home. You use it when you need it. What you pay is based on how long you have the car and how many miles you drive.

The president of the world's largest car-sharing organization, based in Switzerland, was recently in Los Angeles--kingdom of the Solo Commuter--to generate interest in the concept. Transit officials listened politely.

In Europe, explained Conrad Wagner, people like car sharing because it's less expensive than renting a car, and cars are available at all hours and throughout town. Bus and train riders like it, he said, as a way to get to places from transit stations.

It's a great idea for people who cannot afford to own a car or do not use one enough to warrant a purchase, say the promoters. They contend that it would be cheaper for some families to belong to a car-sharing club than to buy a second vehicle.

But as anyone who has ever had to share knows, the concept could have problems. Ask any dad who shares a car with his teenage kids. The radio buttons end up reset to rap music.

Here's how it might work: Those interested would pay a refundable deposit to join Wagner's organization. You would phone ahead to make a reservation for a vehicle.

Cars would be scattered around town. If you don't care what you drive, a car could be as close as a few blocks away, assuming it hasn't been reserved.

Or stolen. The car keys are kept in a lockbox near the car. Members get a computerized card that opens the lockbox.

If you want a minivan to take the kids to soccer or a convertible for a joy ride, you might have to travel farther to get that vehicle.

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You might pay about 40 cents a mile and $1.50 an hour to use the car, Wagner said. Cost of the car, insurance and maintenance are paid from those fees.

When you completed your trip, you would fill out a logbook, recording the distance and duration of your journey.

In Switzerland, Wagner's firm has 10,000 members sharing 600 cars parked in 200 locations. If he ever gets going here, he hopes to maintain a ratio of about 10 to 15 drivers per vehicle and start out in one neighborhood.

The car-sharing organization pays for gas, but members are asked to fill the tank when it gets low.

That could be a problem. Whenever I borrow my wife's car, the gas gauge is on empty.

People are also rough on cars they don't own.

Advocates insist that these would be better than the clunkers in some company's motor pool.

Wagner concedes that there also could be a problem if co-op members drove away without making a reservation. One solution, he said, is to park the cars at gas stations where attendants could watch over them to prevent theft and unauthorized use.

The concept of sharing wheels is not new to the United States.

Transportation engineers are studying a concept called "station cars," where electric vehicles are parked at train stations and used by commuters to complete their trip home or to work.

When the commuter gets out of the car, a light blinks on the roof, signaling to others that the car is available to take them back to the station.

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In another attempt to promote sharing, Portland, Ore., put out about 300 yellow bikes on city streets, free for anyone to use. After two years, they have all but vanished. People stole them or stripped away the parts.

Philip Aker, a Los Angeles city transportation planner who recently met with Wagner, sees another problem.

"In Southern California, with the focus on expressing your personality through your choice of vehicle, it seemed like a pool car, kind of plain gray, would not be too appealing," he said.

But advocates insist that participants won't be driving just Pintos.

Ellen Vanderslice, a Portland city transportation planner who also recently met with Wagner, said the concept would provide residents with "mobility insurance."

She and her husband tried to live without a car. "A car-share club would have been just perfect," she said. "We could have much more easily lived that car-free lifestyle and avoided imposing on our friends for rides."

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