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CALIFORNIA | BEHIND THE WHEEL

Car-Sharing Fills a Driving Need For Commuters

Individuals tired of owning vehicles and firms that no longer have fleets turn to companies that provide autos for short-term use.

September 28, 2004|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Peter Capone-Newton sold his car last month.

Not because he's an environmentalist or a policy wonk out to do the politically correct thing. Not because he believes in sacrifice.

The 28-year-old medical consultant has actually found a way to get around Los Angeles without the hassle and expense of owning a vehicle.

He lives near the Gold Line in Mount Washington and uses the light rail for nearly all his local travel. And for days when he needs a car, Capone-Newton participates in a fledgling service known as car-sharing.

Here's how it works: An organization (in Los Angeles there's a firm called Flexcar) buys cars and places them throughout a city in various parking lots, all designed to be near where people live and work. Then members, who typically pay by the hour, call in or check online to reserve a car whenever they need one.

It's an idea that has flourished for years in parts of Europe, where cities are congested, parking is expensive and public transportation is easily available.

So far, it's been a tough sell in the Los Angeles area.

Car-sharing is relatively new in the United States, but it's catching on in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and New York -- places with good public transportation systems and where congestion and scarce parking make it a pain to own a car.

There are 38,000 people participating in vehicle-sharing services nationwide, according to Susan Shaheen, a UC Berkeley research scientist who specializes in transportation issues.

In the Bay Area, where a nonprofit called City CarShare runs a service that costs as little as $2 an hour for off-peak usage, 3,500 members share 75 cars in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, according to Executive Director Larry Magid.

The group plans to add 25 vehicles by the end of the year. In Seattle, Flexcar's 15,000 members share 145 cars.

In Los Angeles, where driving is not as difficult as in those other cities and where mass transit is not as available, Capone-Newton is something of a pioneer.

Flexcar, which began its Los Angeles operations two years ago, has about 1,000 members here, and the cars they share are spread over a vast area.

The company recently scaled back its presence here, reducing the number of cars from 50 to 15 and reducing the number of locations to about half a dozen in Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Koreatown, downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Several of the vehicles are kept at downtown transit hubs, including Union Station and the headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Even with the reductions, the 15 cars are being used only once a day on average.

Flexcar's Southern California general manager, William Del Valle, concedes that in many parts of town, it might even be less expensive and more convenient to rent a car than to share one.

Despite a slow start, the company plugs on, convinced that there will be a niche for them in traffic-clogged Los Angeles.

"We definitely had challenges ... but we anticipated those to some degree," Del Valle said. "We felt that if we could make car-sharing work in Los Angeles we could make it work anywhere."

The company's customers pay a membership fee of $35 a year and are charged between $7.50 and $10 an hour for the use of the car. Sometimes a mileage fee is assessed for longer distances. There is no charge for insurance, maintenance, fuel or cleaning the cars, which are mainly Honda Civic hybrids.

After reserving a car online or by phone, members go to one of the lots and use a key card to open the doors of the vehicle. The keys are usually inside the glove compartment.

Some customers are individuals like Capone-Newton, who use the cars for trips that would be difficult on public transportation.

But others are businesses that have decided to do away with fleet cars.

Melinda Meiojas works for a downtown engineering firm whose employees must frequently drive to an office in Santa Ana.

Rather than buying company cars for workers to use, the firm signed up with Flexcar.

Now, on days when she has to drive to Orange County, Meiojas catches a ride with her husband from her Santa Monica home and picks up a beige Honda Civic hybrid that's parked a few minutes from her house.

The 48-year-old writer and graphic designer drives the Honda to Santa Ana, saving wear and tear on her own car.

"I prefer not to use my own car," Meiojas said. "Before I started using Flexcar, I had three flat tires in my car -- including one where a pair of scissors got stuck in the tire."

It's still not clear whether car-sharing will work in Los Angeles.

Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, says the concept is "incredibly promising." But, he says, to work it requires a strong public transportation system and a big network of vehicles available for sharing. Success could be limited by the region's vast size.

"It can work if it's complementary with other services," he said. "If someone lives near a Rapid Bus line and can use that to get to work, they might still be reluctant to give up their car" unless there were alternatives like car-sharing, inexpensive taxis or even rental cars easily available.

For Capone-Newton, car-sharing provided the last piece of the transportation safety net, giving him the confidence to sell his car in this notoriously transit un-friendly city.

He spends about $200 per month on Flexcar, but his employer reimburses him for all but about $50. He figures that it saves him about $400 each month in car payments, insurance and maintenance on his old Jetta.

He loves living near the Gold Line, and Flexcar, he says, fills in the gaps when he needs a car.

"It wears you out driving a car a lot," he said. "This gives me another choice."

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