Editor's note: an earlier version of this story said the Sea Rocket Bistro is in South Park, but it is in North Park.
Monday, August 6, 2012
SAN DIEGO It's a late afternoon in July and a few of the blue-and-white electric cars that make up the Car2Go fleet in San Diego are parked outside the Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park. These little two-seaters can be rented by the hour, or even by the minute, for trips in central San Diego.
Car-sharing and companies like Zipcar and Car2Go have put a dent in the dream of car ownership, even in auto-dependent San Diego.
The company’s promotional event attracted some potential customers and some committed car-sharers, like Bistro owner Dennis Stein. He said when he needs a car, there’s almost always one nearby.
“So basically I pull out my phone. I go on their Car2Go app. It shows me a map and 90 percent of the time there is one within five blocks of here,” he said.
Owning a car is a little like owning a house. It’s the American dream. But our relationship to the car may be changing, even in car-dependent San Diego, thanks to a trend called “car-sharing.”
Stein, for instance, does not own his own car. That means he has no car payments, no car insurance payments and no cost of vehicle upkeep. As for convenience, Stein said car-sharing works.
“The combination of Car2Go and my bicycle and borrowing cars from friends, occasionally, is more than enough," he said. "And it’s really worked out well.”
Car2Go is just of one company in the short-term car-rental business. Zipcar is another. There are three or four Zipcars parked in a lot right across the street from KPBS, on the San Diego State campus. You hold your member card over an electric eye to unlock the car. You use the key that’s tethered to the dashboard to start it up, and your car rental begins.
Zipcar and Car2Go charge customers between $8.50 and $13 an hour. A Car2Go spokesman said the company currently has more than 6,000 members in San Diego County.
Other companies facilitate the sharing of private vehicles. Sign up with Getaround.com, and you join a network of people interested in either renting your personal car for awhile or offering you theirs.
But cost savings and convenience aside, the desire to help the environment is a clear motivator for people who car-share. Studies by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, among others, show car-sharing means fewer cars on the road and fewer miles traveled. Robin Chase, a former CEO of Zipcar, discussed the environmental angle in a video distributed by Greenbiz.com.
“For me, the one I really more love, of the environmental benefits, is that when you pay by the hour or the day you drive 80 percent less," said Chase, "because you’re cognizant of exactly why and how I should take a car, instead of some other mode.”
Elyse Lowe is the executive director of Move San Diego, which lobbies for alternative transportation. She said car-sharing has filled a void for San Diego transit users.
“Public transit doesn’t fit for everyone," she said. "Sometimes it doesn’t get you where you need to go in the time."
She added that San Diegans are used to having cars.
"They’re used to having that flexibility and being able to call the shots in getting from point A to point B in a set amount of time," said Lowe. "Car-sharing fills that void for you without having to own your own car.”
For San Diegan Howard Blackson, using Car2Go didn’t mean going carless. But it did mean his family of four could get along by owning only one car. Blackson uses the service for occasional business trips from his downtown office. He said Car2Go has basically become his second car.
“I really only use the car to go to meetings downtown, down on the waterfront, over in Mission Hills, or over in North Park, where it’s a little too far for me to walk," said Blackson. "And I have access to a car.”
“You have to realize there are options out there," said Lowe. "And with just a little bit of effort you can actually try something that will save you money and be good for the environment as well.”
The world of car-sharing in San Diego is still pretty small. Zipcar is primarily serving people at colleges and universities. The zone where you can use and drop off a Car2Go ends doesn’t go north of Mission Bay Park, and it doesn’t go east of Interstate 15.
But people hope the concept of being able to have a car handy, that you can rent by the hour or the minute, will mean you don’t have to own one. You can just use a car when you need one, and then walk away.