Five Questions With An Expert Studying NYC’s Car-Share Pilot

Berkeley-based researcher Susan Shaheen is conducting surveys on behalf of NYC DOT.

Photo: Car2Go
Photo: Car2Go

SB Donation NYC header 2Is New York City’s car-share pilot working?

In one short — and very premature — word: yes.

The city has been setting aside on-street parking for car-share companies since June in hopes of reducing private car ownership — and a final report isn’t due until September. But we’re impatient, so we called Susan Shaheen, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, who has been hired by DOT to ask NYC car-share users how the program has changed their travel behavior.

What are the potential positives of car-sharing?

When I first was exposed to the concept of auto-sharing, what appealed to me was that it had the ability to shift people away from the fixed costs of car-use into a variable model. You only use car-share when you need to. One of the findings from Europe, after it became more popularized there in the late 1980s, was that auto ownership declined with car-share use.

What I’m starting to see from the earlier New York survey work in April is some of those same trends, particularly the round-trip model.

The next question is: if people did or did not give up their own cars, how did car-share influence their use of other modes? How does the use of other modes in the ecosystem change as a result of car-sharing? The causal link component is something we put a lot of attention on because we want to understand — did car-share cause less car ownership. We want to work with participants to understand if the introduction of car-share in their lives changed their behavior.

We’re trying to help New York City unravel how their car share is impacting human behavior.

Who uses car-share?

Of the round-trip car-sharing members we surveyed in April 2018, most joined for additional mobility because they did not own/lease a personal vehicle. Members tend to be male and Caucasian, although membership does include people who identify as Asian, Black/African, and Hispanic/Latino. Women make up less than half of the membership population, which is not unusual in car-sharing more generally.

One thing we’ve found in our two decades of research is that there’s no one response to an innovation. What we see in our surveys is a whole range of response. In some cases, you’ll see that some people now have access to a car, and what is happening is they’re traveling more by car.

How does joining car-share tend to impact user travel behavior?

Reserved car-share parking like this is popping up all over the city. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Reserved car-share parking like this is popping up all over the city. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Members tend to use car-sharing for recreational trips within and outside the five boroughs. This is consistent with prior car-sharing research in the U.S. Members also tend to use car-sharing vehicles to go to/from the grocery store and move bulky items. This is consistent with prior car-sharing research in the U.S.

If round-trip car-sharing was unavailable, slightly more people would have taken [Uber/Lyft] than rail, more would have rented a car from a traditional car rental company, and some would not have taken the trip.

About half of people who gave up one personal vehicle did so due to the car-sharing service. Many New Yorkers surveyed did not have a car to get rid of in the year before they became car-sharing members.

Does that mean that car-share will cause more New Yorkers to drive?

My colleague Robert Cervero has studied this in San Francisco. Initially, a lot of people who were attracted to car-share were non-car owners. Then, over time, they found more people who owned cars joined the system. Eventually, there was a net decline in vehicle miles traveled. What we’ve seen in a lot of the research we’ve done in shared mobility.

In New York City, we’re seeing a combination of people who have cars and people who don’t. It’s not one way or the other.

Along with that question, an important question needs to be asked: Were you thinking of buying a car anyway? We don’t just like if you sell a car, but did car-share cause you to suppress buying a car? You can’t just say, “OK, this person didn’t own a car so they’re driving all over the place.”

As somebody who’s studied this phenomenon for 25 years, I can tell you that the fixed costs of auto ownership cause people to use their cars more often. The marginal cost of each trip is small. Once people invest in the car, they’re invested in that form of mobility in an almost exclusive fashion.

What are some challenges cities face when introducing car-share?

Per this New York Times article, there can be dissent from citizens, if they perceive that parking spots that they are used to having for their personal vehicles are repurposed for car-sharing. In New York City, there is already competition for parking spaces. It’s also challenging to expand car-sharing to low-income and minority groups. In this project, we will compare car-sharing member demographics to neighborhood demographics to investigate whether a wider population is using car-sharing in New York City.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

SB Donation NYC header 2

  • AnoNYC

    Well I am a potential candidate for car share but there is an issue.

    First off, the nearest car share pilot area is one mile north of me. For car share to be successful there should be a certain density of car share pick-up/drop-off points. I imagine no more than a 5 minute walk away (think bike share but less dense since car share should be utilized less often).

    Second of all, I would like to use a point-to-point service (Car2go) but there is none available to me in the Bronx.

    I would like to use car share for occasional trips between my area in the Southeast Bronx and parts of Brooklyn and Queens when visiting friends (sometimes staying overnight). Currently, the trips I am thinking utilizing mass transportation take well over an hour.

    Car2go would be great for these occasional trips, but they are not available in my borough, which makes it useless to me and over a million others.

    If car share doesn’t come to my neighborhood, including point to point in the next 2-3 months I may buy or lease another car (had one before but sold it to experiment with how much more time it would take me to get around since I don’t use it often).

    Although I don’t use a car often, because of where I live certain trips can become really long. I live in the Southeast Bronx, about a mile from the nearest subway stop.

  • Ian Turner

    It would be great to see car2go expand to all the outer boroughs.

  • I understand the frustration of being outside the zone. I have used car2go on occasion, even though I am three miles away from the zone. When car2go debuted, its cars in Portland, Oregon had bike racks; so I hoped that it would similarly equip its New York cars. Unfortunately, this has not happened. So, if I want to use the service, I would have to take the train or bus in order to get to the zone.

    This failure to include bike racks in the New York fleet is puzzling, considering the huge population in the area surrounding the very small car2go zone. Having bike racks on the cars would put tens of thousands of people within a five- or ten-minute ride of the zone (for me it would be about a fifteen-minute ride).

  • mfs

    I’m really excited about the pilot, but…

    1) The spots are taken by other vehicles and it makes it difficult to use.

    I’m right near two Zipcar spots and have used the service at least half a dozen times but it gets frustrating because the spots are typically taken by a non-zipcar vehicle (often a truck loading). So I almost always have to call Zipcar twice – once find out where it is, and once to tell them where I parked it.

    2) Zipcar is not tuned into the user experience.
    Zipcar could probably easily automate a special notification about where the car is, and they could give much better directions on their website about what to do when you can’t find a space.

    The functionality of their web portal and the conditions of the cars has gotten worse over the last few years in a number of ways that suggest Zipcar as a corporation is not as fully tuned into the customer experience as they used to be. So I worry that this shrug attitude towards the customer experience, the extra cost of two calls per rental, plus some of the damage to the on-street cars I’ve seen, will lead them to shrugging the pilot off.

    3) It’s more expensive than you might think because these are under the same tax as airport car rentals

    Last, it’s really really frustrating that all car share trips have a 20% total tax on them – sales tax, plus two dedicated rental taxes. It makes it harder to justify this as a cheaper option than car ownership when it’s $60-80 for a multi-hour rental, rather than $50-60.

  • JarekFA

    They need to exempt NYC residents from the rental car tax. It’s like 20%. It’s huge. If they’re trying to get people to give up car ownership and embrace car share then they need to remove that tax.

  • jarekfa wrote

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