Zipcar vs. Car2go, Part II: Freewheelin’ but fretful with Car2go

Cathy HastieThis week on the blog, lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie reports on a big project: To test the carsharing market leaders Zipcar and Car2go against each other, and figure out whether they could ever be part of letting her family do without its own cars.

Yesterday: Zipcar. Today, she tells the story of her week using Car2go, the freewheeling, no-commitment shared cars she once imagined scooping off the street “like drunk frat boys in a singles bar.” But what happened next wasn’t quite so simple.

Week two of my carlessness experiment commenced during a gloomy, drippy November. I had signed up for a Car2go account at the Komen Race for the Cure Expo, where they were offering memberships free of the customary, one-time $35 initiation fee. I planned to use only Car2go for all motorized travel for seven days in order to evaluate how the service fit into my life. Having just completed one week using only Zipcar for all of my automobile needs, I looked forward to no threatening late fees, no reservations and what appeared to be a less structured and less stressful car-share program.

a Car2go in PortlandWith the ubiquitous, bunny-like white and blue Smart cars proliferating the streets, I felt secure that the Car2go model would easily provide for my minimal driving needs, and possibly cost less than Zipcar. The Car2go model is very different from Zipcar. They charge by the minute, with per-hour and per-day maximums, but the home-run feature of this structure is that you can claim any Car2go car you see on the street and deposit it anywhere within the Portland “home area,” without reservations or deadlines. It’s like a teenager’s dream date: spontaneous, fecund and curfew-free.

low-car culture with PDX's Cathy HastieBefore the week began, I excitedly browsed the webpage to get familiar with the system. I was the perfect candidate for this service: I live in the “home area” and all my regular destinations are also within it. But right away, I realized I was at a distinct disadvantage: I don’t own a smartphone! To take advantage of the free-form, no-planning-required platform, I would need to be able to search for a Car2go at the moment I needed it. My 6-year old dumb-phone couldn’t do that.

My fantasies of picking up available vehicles like drunk frat boys in a singles bar faded a bit, but I determined to make the best of it. I would use Car2go’s toll-free customer service that finds nearby cars, or plan in advance from my computer as best I could. Hope springs eternal! But sadly, I found over the next few days that even the somewhat diluted buzz I was feeling proved to be misplaced.

My Car2go driving diary

Tuesday: At 11:00 am, I was at home looking online for a Car2go vehicle nearby. I was shocked to find that my inner-southeast neighborhood, a supposed Mecca for progressive transportation users and providers, was instead a black hole on the Car2go locator map. There was not a single car within a mile of my house! Could it be that people drove these cars to work and left them all downtown?

Maybe my neighbors all ride bikes and don’t need Car2go vehicles. I found it weird and disorienting. I didn’t need the car until 5:45 pm that night. Miraculously, a Car2go car appeared on the map only a block from my house at 5:30. My daughter and I hurriedly packed our bags and rushed out the door. I was afraid it would disappear in the 5 minutes it would take us to get there. When I got to the corner and saw its iconic blue and white paint job through the blur of passing rush-hour traffic, a rush of relief filled me. I crossed the street and gratefully swiped my card on the windshield of the golfcart-like vehicle.

I got in. Their cramped outward appearance doesn’t penetrate to the inside. The seating and headroom feel adequate and normal in most ways. Because I couldn’t figure out how to push the seat forward so I could put my heavy backpack in the small “trunkette,” I strained my back lifting it through the gap between the two front seats. Finally, engine running, handbrake released, mind open, I was ready to partake of the Car2go experience. With eager anticipation, I pressed on the gas. The moment of expected elation suddenly metamorphosed into something horribly disturbing.

I pulled out, making the first point in a three-point U-turn – the car’s small size allows this even on narrow side streets – and I came very close to slamming into the opposite curb! The foot brake was as stiff as a brick. With no response at first, I had to stomp on it with the force of a gorilla to keep from hitting the obstacle in front of me. I sat there stunned. Then I swore for a few minutes. Then I got over my shock and drove cautiously on.

Unfortunately, the trip did not improve much from there. The Daimler Fortwo’s “automated manual” transmission switches gears like a manual transmission, but without a clutch. It pitched us forwards and backwards as the car switched gears, like mariners on a windy sea, and my off-color language began to simulate that of a sailor.

My class happens to be situated at the exact edge of the Car2go territory. I crossed my fingers that there were very few users that far out, parked and logged off the clock. When class got out at 8:30 pm, my gamble paid off – the car was still there. I drove home and parked it right outside my front door, smug in the knowledge that I would have an easy time for an early morning appointment the next day.

Wednesday: But the next morning, it was gone. I turned on my ancient computer to search for another vehicle while I ate breakfast. The closest was only two blocks away at 7 a.m., but by 7:30 a.m. it, too, disappeared from the map. I set my sights on another, half a mile away. My daughter and I drove one mile to the orthodontist. I took the risk of logging off, but no one came looking for it during the 20 minute appointment, and we were able to log back in and drive to her school. I left it there, and walked to my optometrist appointment a few blocks away, relieved to not have to count on an ethereal car that anyone could just come and take without notice. How anxiety-provoking!

Thursday: I was walking home from work and it was taking longer than I had anticipated. I was late for a school meeting. It started to rain. My feet hurt. This was exactly the kind of situation I had envisioned where a well-placed Car2go car would come to my rescue, absolving itself for its transitory and capricious nature. I was on the lookout. If my own special Car2go vehicle were to appear on the street in front of me, I vowed, I would forgive it for deserting me the day before. Alas, Car2go did not swoop down, blue and white cape fluttering in the impending storm. Without a smartphone, I couldn’t quickly search for that much-needed relief, so I marched forth, feeling abandoned by my supposed four-wheeled hero. I guessed I wouldn’t be falling in love that night.

Friday: Walking home from my daughter’s school, one mile away, I thought again about trying to use the service, impromptu. I tried the Car2go customer service phone number, hoping they would be able to look up my location and send me to a nearby vehicle. I waited on hold as I covered three blocks and decided instead, to call my 12-year-old daughter and ask her to look it up on her iPod. She was able to direct me to a car within 3 blocks – in the wrong direction.

Saturday: My infatuation with Car2go had turned into fretful anxiety. I found myself dreading leaving the house. I had nightmares about not being able to get anywhere, not being able to find a car, not being able to count on a transportation option I have taken for granted for so long. I cringed at the thought of having to look for a car, expecting that one would not be available. It was simply “NOT KNOWING” that drove me crazy. Like a jealous cuckold, I spent far too much time worrying about where “my” car was and when it would come back.

That night on a short trip out to dinner with my husband, the Fortwo bucking like an unbroken stallion, I suddenly exclaimed, “I can’t wait for the day when I will never have to drive one of these #@$%&@ cars again!” I silently apologized to the little beast. I felt like I had kicked a dog.

But like an unneutered canine, the car inevitably disappeared during the course of an hour and a half meal. I was annoyed, but I had to admit, it impressed me. Obviously, people use these cars. They are in high demand. As my husband and I walked towards home, I concluded that the service must work well for a lot of people, or else my little rascal would have sat, faithfully awaiting my return on the little side street where I had tried to hide it. You can’t hide from GPS.

Running the numbers on Car2go: Affordable, if not accessible

a Car2go in AustinAt 38 cents per minute, I spent a grand total of $30.78 for my week of Car2go service. I made 7 trips over the course of seven days. These consisted of one round trip, one trip with multiple stops, and one one-way trip. I was in the car for 81 minutes and traveled a total of 17 miles. That comes out to $1.81 per mile, $4.40 per day, or about $12.31 per round-trip equivalent. The monthly cost, if this week is representative, would be about $123.12. This is a bargain compared to the cost of owning a car – even my old, paid-off cars cost about $384 (for both) or $230 per month to maintain and fill-up the nicer one.

Because I only paid for the time I was actively using the car, my costs were far lower than those of the previous week with Zipcar. Car2go’s $1.81 cost per mile is still 40 percent lower than Zipcar’s $2.54.

Granted, I drove fewer miles during my Car2go week. But consider this: I couldn’t use Car2go like I used Zipcar, or like I use my own car.  The service just isn’t set up that way. I was thwarted a few times in my attempts, so ended up not driving as much as I normally would. Car2go allows users to reserve a car, free of charge, for 15 minutes at a time. I didn’t take advantage of this option, in part, because I lacked that smartphone internet connection.

In my mind, the Car2go service is more appropriately contrasted with riding the bus. Both are location-specific, opportunistic, and transitory in nature, very unlike owning a car. A Trimet pass costs $100 per month, making the price of my Car2go usage very attractive in comparison. However, I would bet that anyone who depends on Car2go as their only vehicle, also uses Trimet consistently. Car2go is a supplement, not a substitute.

The bottom line on Car2go: Proof that I am not cool

As my experimental week progressed, I learned that Car2go vehicles were close to my home in the evenings, and clustered downtown during the day. I also learned early on that trying to plan ahead was fruitless. This alone forced a major shift in my perspective.  I like to know, well in advance, where and how and when I will be moving from place to place. It affects how I dress, what I carry, and which errands I combine. But with Car2go, I couldn’t know until the very instant I was ready to walk out the door. The cars moved like phantom ships, appearing and disappearing from the online map as people partook of their services and discarded them. I never quite got used to it.

These cars seem to be built for urban fun: For going out on the town, meeting friends at bars, and getting home after the buses stop running. Apparently, my life has very little “fun.” Car2go cars embody the people I imagine to be their clientele – freewheeling, spontaneous and on the go. They probably don’t have kids – the two-seater wouldn’t accommodate it.

My week with Car2go gave me a glimpse of the path not taken – the cool one, the childless one with an active nightlife and ultimate flexibility. Car2go’s low cost seems like it would fit right into this lifestyle. But for the path I did choose in life, Car2go’s psychological cost kept me up at night. Could I count on it to get me to my appointment the next morning? To commit to me in my moment of need? Like a neighborhood cat who “belongs” to whoever feeds him, Car2go vehicles give themselves away to stranger after stranger, whimsically cavorting with whoever wants to play, abandoning their last user without a parting glance.

I may take comfort in Car2go’s warm, dry interior on a cold, winter night, but I can’t expect to see it in the morning.

The experiment concludes: Winners don’t take all

After a two-week experiment of living as if I did not own a car, I know so much more than the facts I unearthed on the internet about Portland’s Car2go and Zipcar car-share programs. Beyond the rate structures and locator maps is a wealth of “getting it” that only experience can convey.

I thought that my two weeks would allow me to compare Zipcar and Car2go, one against the other. I thought I would declare one of the two programs a ‘winner.’  What I actually discovered is that the two programs are incomparable – they are night and day, apples and oranges, cats and dogs. Each could easily fill-in a different empty spot in my imagined carless life. In fact, if I try to replicate the level of efficiency, speed and convenience that I now have as a self-described “infrequent” driver, both services would be necessary. But that’s not all. To truly live the life I want to live, I would have to add a trusty bicycle, a versatile wardrobe (especially shoes), and the truly faithful public service: TriMet.

If I were to give up car ownership, I am in a good place to do so with few limitations. Even the combined cost of a monthly bus pass, Car2go and Zipcar memberships, annual bike tune-ups and a good pair of walking shoes ends up being more or less affordable. But let’s face it – I am comfortably middle-aged. I value my time perhaps more than my money. It takes time to deal with reservations and memberships. Racing to return cars on time adds pressure, threatening my ability to move leisurely through my weekly routine.

Assigning a dollar figure to each minute I spend enjoying life is not something I am willing to do. It is a stress I can literally afford to live without. I am a committed bike commuter and walker, but I am still, underneath it all, a car addict! Maybe it’s a low level dependency, but my brain chemistry demands predictability, dependability, instant gratification and control. My fix – a well-aged shot of Honda Civic – provides the chemical key to those synapses. It would take a serious round of detox to convert me completely.

Yesterday: Cathy’s report on Zipcar, the very different service she found more reliable and less stressful, though more expensive, than Car2go. Don’t miss it.

Cathy Hastie is a Portland-based writer and civil engineering project manager. She also blogs on her own site, Portlandcentric. First Car2go photo by Miss Sheri. Second Car2go photo by Labanex.

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