Levine’s Car2Go Bill Needs Cold Hard Data on Company’s Traffic Impact

This afternoon, Council Member Mark Levine will introduce a bill [PDF 1, 2] requiring DOT to give car-share companies designated on-street parking spaces, potentially for a price. Guaranteed parking would boost car sharing, Levine says, and reduce car ownership. Trouble is, there’s not much data to say whether or not car-share in New York is reducing vehicle ownership or just encouraging more driving.

After 280,000 trips in Brooklyn, has Car2Go led to more driving, or less? We still don't know. Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr
After 280,000 trips in Brooklyn in less than a year, has Car2Go led to more driving, or less? We still don’t know. Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Levine introduced the bill days after Car2Go announced an expansion into western Queens. The company, owned by auto giant Daimler, offers a fleet of 450 Smart cars in a 36 square-mile zone covering the western half of Brooklyn, from Greenpoint to Coney Island. Starting August 29, the company is adding another 100 vehicles and eight square miles in Long Island City, Astoria, Woodside, and Sunnyside. Customers of the point-to-point service can start and end trips in any free curbside parking space.

“The focus area of Car2Go in New York currently is in Brooklyn-Queens connections, where there’s little to no subway links,” Levine said. “I strongly believe this is ultimately a substitute for car ownership. In the outer boroughs, the further you get from the Central Business District, the more car ownership increases because the transit links are weaker.”

There isn’t enough research to back or refute Levine’s intuition. That’s for two reasons. First, most scholarship has focused on round-trip services like Zipcar, whose customers start and finish their trips in the same parking spot. Second, there isn’t much data on cities with New York’s level of density, transit service, and low car ownership rates.

Susan Shaheen, a car-share expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said car-share has a varied impact, depending on each customer’s circumstances. “Many individuals will drive marginally more,” she said in an email. “Other individuals will drive substantially less, as they alter their relationship with the private auto to one of necessity rather than convenience.”

In fact, one of the advantages of car-share is that it calculates the cost of driving using a per-minute or per-hour rate. In contrast, car ownership frontloads big expenses like insurance and car payments, making each subsequent trip seem less expensive.

This has an impact: Shaheen’s research shows that, on average, people drive 27 percent fewer miles after joining round-trip car-share services. A quarter sell their personal vehicles after joining, and another quarter postpone buying a car.

There isn’t much data on the effect of one-way services like Car2Go. This fall, Shaheen is launching a study using trip data provided by the company, supplemented with before-and-after surveys of customers’ travel habits. New York is not one of the five cities in the study.

“I have not seen data specific to New York City on car-sharing,” Shaheen said.

Other cities require car-share companies to disclose trip data as a condition of getting access to curbside parking, Shaheen said, but the data is not typically made public because the companies wish to keep the information proprietary.

Seattle, for example, released a report earlier this year on Car2Go usage. The city received the data as a condition of allowing the company to launch a pilot program. It found an average Car2Go vehicle is used six times per day and sits between 68 and 150 minutes before being used, depending on whether it’s in a metered space or a permit zone. Between three and four percent of Seattle Car2Go members reported giving up a personal vehicle after joining, but the report didn’t come to any firm conclusions about how Car2Go affected the total number of miles driven in Seattle.

New York does not have a similar agreement with Car2Go, and the company’s trip data is not publicly available. Car2Go says its 27,000 members have taken 280,000 trips in Brooklyn since it launched in October 2014, with an average trip time between 10 and 20 minutes.

It’s an open question how many of those trips replaced journeys that would’ve been taken by private car, taxi, livery, bicycle, or transit. We also don’t know how many Car2Go members in New York have given up or delayed car ownership because of the service, or if they are driving more miles now than they were before Car2Go launched.

“We are very happy to work with the city and any other external stakeholders to help them understand how our model works,” said Car2Go spokesperson Adrianne Wright.

DOT said it looks forward to seeing more data from Car2Go about its operations in New York.

“We do feel there needs to be more data collected,” Levine said. “I’d love to get that data, and it’s something we should talk to the company about. And if need be, it’s something we should legislate.”

  • JK

    Overall this bill seems premature. I am skeptical of claims that car share will meaningfully reduce car use in NYC — it may even lead to more driving in some neighborhoods by making car use more convenient. In NYC two kinds of people drive, those with free parking at home or those rich enough to garage their car.

    In turn, people who have free curbside parking do not commute nearly as much as those with free off-street parking, because they are afraid they will lose their curbside spot and have nowhere to park when they get home. ( See 2007 comparison between Park Slope and Jackson Hts http://www.transalt.org/sites/default/files/news/reports/guaranteed_parking.pdf )

    Depending on the neighborhood, there are not nearly as many curbside spots as their are households. In 2007 Park Slope for instance, there were about 10,200 curbside spots and 1,420 off-street spots for 24,360 dwellings. Park Slopers then owned about 11,875 vehicles and 5,300 drove to work. Curbside occupancy in Park Slope was/is about 100%. So, at most, half of people parking curbside drove to work. It’s likely these same people do not use their cars much for errands because of their fear of losing the parking spot on their home curb. Let’s say you give 10% of curb space to car share. In Park Slope circa 2007, that would surely lead to reducing in car ownership, but it might lead to more Slopers driving to non-commute trips, since they wouldn’t have to worry about the home parking spot.

    Lastly, I hope the bill does not contemplate giving away metered
    spots. Metered spots are intended to provide parking for service and
    delivery vehicles so they don’t double park, and to reduce cruising for
    parking by short-term visitors. Replacing lost meter revenue does not
    come close to mitigating the public impact of taking away high turn-over
    parking in high demand areas.

  • Chris

    In my opinion, Streetsblog is finding its space on the “opposite” side of the spectrum from the NY Post. This post is a perfect example.

    File me under disappointed.

  • millerstephen

    Car2Go is an innovative, convenient service, but it’s still unclear whether it actually reduces or encourages car use in dense urban areas. There’s nothing inflammatory or sensationalist about highlighting those unanswered questions.

  • BSPABNY

    Streetsblog is very transparent about its mission and stays true to it, unlike the Post.

    That said, I agree with the sentiment that we need to broaden the discussion around this specific topic to include economic and social considerations. For example, could we consider whether Cars2Go vehicle storage is a better use of street space than private car storage, bike lanes, bus lanes, wider sidewalks, loading zones, etc. Let’s assume the most of these spaces would be on side streets where the only real viable alternative is widening sidewalks or installing bike lanes. Let’s further assume that side streets where Cars2Go would be parked could be redesigned to accommodate bike lanes, sufficiently wide sidewalks, and truck loading zones, and bus lanes aren’t needed on the specific streets where Cars 2 Go would be stored. Now we’re really taking about a choice between private vehicle storage and Cars 2 Go storage. I’ll take Cars 2 Go.

    There are additional economic issues, like whether Cars 2 Go enables people to get to jobs, medical appointments, and other destinations that they otherwise couldn’t access by transit, waking, or biking. If the city can take steps to reduce private vehicle ownership, will people spend their extra disposable income on activities that benefit the city’s economy? I’m only scratching the surface here. I’m not trying to advocate for Cars 2 Go, but instead I’m trying to point out that the discussion should be broader than “cars bad.”

  • Jonathan R

    Your point about the question being private vehicle storage vs. shared-vehicle storage is a good one.

    As devil’s advocate, however, I could say CG is only good for getting around in the local area, while a private vehicle can be used for trips anywhere. For instance, visiting aged and infirm relatives who live in transit-inaccessible areas is one reason I hear frequently to justify ownership of a private vehicle.

    Also bear in mind that the annual cost of owning a 10-year-old motor vehicle is much less than the cost of owning a late-model motor vehicle as the buying price has already been depreciated away and the insurance is less. So it’s possible that it would be cheaper to keep your own old jalopy than rent one when needed.

    In general I am skeptical of firms whose money is made on selling something that is available for free at a different scale. CG sells generalized access to a motor vehicle in a transit-dependent part of the city. Is that something that the city should give away?

  • Reader

    “There isn’t enough research to back or refute Levine’s intuition.”

    Yes, this kind of nuance is so extreme! Just like the Post!

  • I think as long as Car2Go stays out of Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn its a good thing. The reality is, large parts of NYC still have suburban-type transit connections. Having a service like this allows you to make certain trips that may not be quite accessible. That can include one-off activities like an isolated spa complex, batting cages, a warehouse sales place, etc

  • The premise of this article is rather wrong-headed. So what if car2go is replacing some bike or transit trips! If people are choosing car2go, that means it is better than the alternatives. Who are we (or politicans) to tell them they should use other modes? If the decision to drive a car has greater negative externalities than other modes, the solution is simple: internalize the externalities with a tax!

  • What’s wrong with going into Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn? The real problem is lack of congestion pricing. If that were fixed, I really see no logical reason to exclude congested areas.

  • It’s the premise of whether reducing or encouraging car use should be monitored by the government that is flawed. The government should strive to set a level playing field, most notably by charging appropriate usage fees for street space via congestion pricing, VMT tax, etc, then let the chips fall where they may.

  • I don’t think the city is contemplating giving away these curbside parking spaces to C2G. I think there’s a real opportunity for the streetsblog activists to change the wasteful and inefficient paradigm of free parking in NYC by getting C2G to pay for spots that are currently free.

  • millerstephen
  • I read and enjoyed that piece back when you first wrote it. Articles like that are part of the reason I started following streetsblog. Don’t get me wrong, I think you’ve done a lot of good work. Sometimes, especially lately, I feel you’ve been a bit too beholden to the liberal agenda without thinking independently about what’s best for our transportation system (and for our streets).

  • William Farrell

    For the reasons you mention, it is abundantly obvious that an excessive number of cars in a city environment is a societal ill. Why shouldn’t we, or the government, advocate against societal ills? There is no “neutral” approach to political issues- they all imply moral positions. So let’s recognize the moral arguments rather than pretend we are arguing from objectivity.

  • William Farrell

    I think you may be confusing maintaining intellectual consistency with being beholden to some nefarious agenda. It doesn’t really do any good to assume that someone is arguing in bad faith just because you don’t subscribe to that ideological position.

  • Cars are inherently amoral. Cars have problems, sure, but they have benefits, too. Who are you to decide whether the problems outweigh the benefits? The sole issue the government must redress is car owners not paying for the problems they cause. If they are made to pay and still choose to drive, then the benefit must be greater than the cost.

  • Joe R.

    We also need a gas tax which covers the negative externalities of air pollution and global warming. Most of what I’ve seen suggests something in the $5 to $10 per gallon range. The same tax should apply to all vehicles, even public transit buses. This would accelerate the move to EVs and other ZEVs. I’ve little doubt it would also result in far less driving and car ownership in NYC.

  • BSPABNY

    I wholeheartedly agree with the earlier Streetsblog article and Tal F’s point that the city should make C2G, Zipcar, and private vehicles pay to use public street space for vehicle storage. I would add that any net new vehicle trips by C2G within and between their outer borough service areas would likely reflect economic activity in Brooklyn and Queens that may not have existed absent C2G. Not all motor vehicle trips are inherently bad, particularly fuel-efficient Smart Cars traveling on uncongested roadways between points where transit, biking, and walking are not viable options.

  • William Farrell

    First of all, nothing is inherently amoral. As for the second part: who am I to decide? I am a part of society, and as such, interested in seeing society flourish. So we debate and discuss the relative merits of various policies to that end. Now I certainly agree that motorists ought to pay for the substantial negative externalities that they inflict on society, but that belief is not based in some abstract, amoral, laissez-faire framework. My beliefs, as are yours and everyone else’s, are based in subjective beliefs and assessments about what an optimally functioning society will look like. I find it more transparent to own our beliefs rather than delude ourselves into thinking we are speaking on behalf of some detached, objective framework. Philosophical assumptions are baked into all political frameworks.

  • Just to clarify one thing, I didn’t mean you specifically, but rather who are we to judge. Let each individual judge whether the benefits exceed the costs.

  • AndreL

    I’ve seen this sort of unproductive dynamic play off: an improvement to the paradigm of regular internal combustion cars owned by households and left turned off in storage at premium places (streets, front area of residences etc) for 95% of more of the time is there.

    It could be car sharing, self-driving vehicles, electrical cars…

    Then, some people behave as if they had some sort of societal PTSD: they are so fed up with the uneven playing field that starves transit of money while ceding space even in Manhattan to car storage, or with the way bicycle infrastructure is attacked by all fronts, reluctance of even suspend licenses of drivers that drive way above speed limits and kill people, that hey feel they must shoot down anything that doesn’t collaborate to the goal of upsetting whom they starting viewing as “the enemy”: the “clueless and alienated” car driver.

    In the process, this strange mentality that denies the validity of car use for any trip takes place.

    Nobody here is sanely advocating for daily commutes for office or retail jobs into the dense core of big metros as a viable or desirable use for cars. Most would probably agree with congestion tolls or paid street parking as ways to make use of car infrastructure more efficient.

    However, if you think about some key functionality aspects of cars (instant availability – equivalent to infinite frequency for a transit route -, widespread access without loss of time on erratic patterns, very low use of third-part specialized labor etc), there are several situations where availability or a persona road vehicle makes a certain trip between A and B by a person X the best option.

    If you all think in longer short spans, widespread car sharing availability allows households to reduce or eliminate personal car ownership, and it also makes marginal car use costs more directly related to use than ownership, which in turns might well start defining certain travel mode choice decisions.

    As for congestion in New York, there is ample science on the general phenomenon: drivers searching for street parking or maneuvering to park/un-park their cars, are a major additional source of congestion at the local level, reason by which eliminating street parking and keeping the number of lanes over a whole neighborhood vastly increases the total output as drivers stop circling around, often distracted, scanning for a place to park.

  • Miles Bader

    Also a “space tax” to reflect the fact that one of the biggest problems with cars is the absolutely ridiculous amount of real estate they consume relative to other modes. This is hard to tax, of course, as the space used by car infrastructure isn’t directly connected to individual cars.

    Also a speed tax, because everybody drives way too fast.

  • Miles Bader

    Sure they’re inherently amoral, but in practice, cars are very much the problem. Because cars have been coddled, boosted, and subsidized for so long, with the entire landscape (both physical and societal) remade for their peculiar needs, they’ve entrenched themselves well and good, and are going to take drastic measures to dislodge.

    Once they’ve been knocked out of their privileged and entitled position (and this is going to take a long time, as even the layout of cities reflects it), then we can talk “evenhanded” approaches.

  • AnoNYC

    Outcome of this bill?

    BTW, I bet if congestion pricing and residential parking permits were introduced, people who currently own cars they use every once and a while would dump them and opt for this. Also, citywide coverage is necessary, at least the outer boroughs.

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