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Company Hopes L.A. Motorists Take Car-Sharing for a Test Drive

Supporters liken the programs to time shares for vehicles. They offer people access without the expense of ownership.

November 09, 2002|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Trend-setting Los Angeles is behind the curve when it comes to one novel traffic-reducing solution: car-sharing.

But that is about to change.

Seattle-based Flexcar is betting there is a sizable market of Angelenos who want occasional access to a car without the costs or hassles of ownership. This month, the company is rolling out its members-only service at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, the Burbank Metrolink station and parking lots in Santa Monica and near Old Pasadena.

Car-sharing organizations differ from conventional car rental agencies in that members typically pay only for the hours and miles they drive.

Frequent users often buy bulk-rate plans to lower their hourly cost.

"It's like time-share automobiles," said Neil Peterson, president and chief executive officer of Flexcar and former executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

To hear its boosters describe it, car-sharing can help alleviate freeway congestion by making public transportation more attractive while saving people money. If the train or subway doesn't quite get you there, so the thinking goes, you can hop into a car-share vehicle and drive the rest of the way.

"L.A. has the potential to be the largest market for [car-sharing]," said Michael Woo, a former city councilman and now general manager of Flexcar's Los Angeles office.

But others question whether car-obsessed Southern Californians will ever embrace a car-sharing lifestyle. It may attract low-income people without cars, but for others its appeal will depend on how much it can improve their quality of life, said Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America."

In places where owning a vehicle is not economical, such as parking-space-crunched Manhattan or San Francisco, car-sharing makes sense. But in Southern California, Pisarski said, "it's going to be tough-sweating and a tough sell."

First popularized in Europe in the late 1980s, the concept of car-sharing arrived in North America in the mid-1990s.

There are now 18 car-sharing organizations in the United States serving more than 12,000 members, according to Susan Shaheen, a research scientist at UC Berkeley's Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways program.

The networks include large for-profit enterprises such as Flexcar, with 7,500 total members in Seattle, Portland, San Diego and Washington, D.C.

But there are also smaller operators such as tiny Dancing Rabbit Vehicle Cooperative, which serves 15 members at an eco-village in Rutledge, Mo., and City CarShare in the San Francisco Bay Area, a nonprofit group that started last year and now has 2,000 members.

Other cities with car-sharing programs include Boston, Chicago, New York, Toronto, Montreal and Boulder, Colo., according to the Web site,

"People are looking for creative solutions for transportation," said Elizabeth Sullivan, executive director of City CarShare. "Car-sharing is so much more convenient than taking your car everywhere."

Tim Etheridge, a 37-year-old San Francisco resident, is a recent convert. He doesn't own a car because it's so expensive, and parking anywhere near his Mission District home is a nightmare, he said.

For years he relied only on public transit, but he now car-shares a few times a month. When he needs wheels, he saunters to a City CarShare site two blocks from his home and jumps into one of the five Volkswagen Beetles and Jettas stationed there. "It's almost as if I have a car," Etheridge said.

For occasional drivers, car-sharing can be an even better deal than ownership.

The cost of owning a 5-year-old car in Southern California, after factoring in depreciation, insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, is more than $400 a month, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. New cars cost more than $600 a month.

Car-sharing organizations say their average member spends less than $100 a month. Car-sharing enthusiasts include environmentalists as well as families that own a car but need an occasional second vehicle.

Many networks, including Flexcar and City CarShare, have electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Christopher Quint, a 51-year-old bicycle education consultant in Long Beach, and his wife get along fine with one car most of the time. But Quint recently had to take his father to a doctor's appointment when his wife also needed a car.

So he went to the Long Beach bike station, where the nonprofit Bikestation Coalition has been running a pilot car-sharing program in partnership with Flexcar.

Soon, Quint was cruising toward his dad in North Long Beach in a Ford Think City electric car.

"For us, they're kind of a backup," said Quint, one of 80 members in the program. Car-sharing is also increasingly adopted by small- and medium-size companies that can't or don't want to maintain their own corporate vehicles, Flexcar executives say.

The company's launch in Los Angeles, Burbank, Pasadena and Santa Monica is small for now, with just seven Honda Civics spread over the four sites. In the next few months, three cars will be stationed at Cal State L.A. and six more vehicles at yet-to-be-determined sites around the county, Woo said. Possible future Flexcar sites include the North Hollywood Red Line station, Warner Center in Woodland Hills and UCLA.

Whether or not car-sharing remains a niche or becomes mainstream, experts say, programs should be lauded for providing a transportation alternative.

"It allows people more mobility," said Dan Beal, transportation policy manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "If something like shared cars can help relieve congestion, it's good for everybody."

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