Two Billion Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 15, 2012

Let’s face it, most of us could easily share our car (or, because this is America, cars) with someone else. Most of our vehicles sit parked more than 90 percent of the time, so why not have them earn a bit more of their keep—especially if it saves money?

Zipcar car sharing is hardly news by now—the company, based in “Our Fair City” of Cambridge—has 8,000 vehicles and more than 600,000 members by now—but it takes some interesting twists. On February 6, Zipcar announced a FleetHub partnership with the City of Boston (right next to “Our Fair City”) to share municipal vehicles. The cars will be outfitted with Zipcar’s proprietary technology (including on-line reservations and smart card vehicle access) to make sharing them a snap, and reduce the number of vehicles the city needs to keep at the ready.

Amy Shirk of Zipcar tells me that both Washington, D.C. and Chicago have similar programs to that just launched in Boston. Chicago’s Zipcar4Business version is slightly different, because it gives city employees access to existing shared cars, and city officials say it could save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years. Washington claims to have saved $300,000 during a three-month pilot program and more than a $1 million in the first year. Zipcar also has something else I like—a FastFleet modernization program that helps fleets install charging stations so plug-in hybrids and battery cars can be more easily integrated into the motor pool.

This traffic jam is in Singapore, but it could be anywhere in the world, couldn’t it? (Flickr photo by
This traffic jam is in Singapore, but it could be anywhere in the world, couldn’t it? (Flickr photo by

There are other ways to make sure cars are used more efficiently. That’s the basic concept behind personal car sharing, which is now legal in California and Oregon, and soon probably in other states as well. Because of insurance issues, letting other people drive your car requires a legislative vote, and if it’s successful on the West Coast it will probably get trials elsewhere.

This month, peer-to-peer car sharing company Getaround (which is free to car owners and renters) launched in Portland, leveraging a $1.75 million Federal Highway Administration grant. The idea behind Getaround (which won TechCrunch Disrupt last year as an innovative idea) is to “un-idle” cars and get them working for as many people as possible so we don’t need quite so many of them. The company offers an iPhone app and a car kit so you can process all your transactions through your mobile device. Worried about having your car stolen? It’s happened, but only a few times.

Even “car guys” like us realize that the fewer tailpipes, the better. There are something like a billion cars on the road now, and that number could double in 20 years, say Deborah Gordon and Daniel Sperling in their book called, appropriately enough, Two Billion Cars.

Getaround claims that sharing your car just 15 hours a week can earn you $350 a month. As an example, Lenny Rachitsky’s “Lennysan” car is a silver 2001 BMW 325i with air, leather and “premium sound,” parked at the Stockton/Sutter Garage. Inside is an access card that gets you in and out of the parking garage. Renting the car costs $8.50 an hour, or $40 a day.

A personal Getaround fleet ready to be shared. (Getaround photo)
A personal Getaround fleet ready to be shared. (Getaround photo)

Car sharing seems to be an idea with legs. General Motors has invested an undisclosed amount in the other big California car-sharing company, RelayRides, and Google Ventures has also put money in.

Of course, there are other ways to get people out of cars: Biking, walking and public transportation, to name three. All of these should be encouraged, which is what brings me to the laughable piece of stinking offal about to be officially endorsed by the House of Representatives. The Natural Resources Defense Council says it’s “the worst transportation bill ever,” not least because it guts all the provisions for funding transit in favor of building more highways.

According to David Goldston, NRDC’s government affairs director, the bill “combines an inventory of terrible ideas that go far beyond what’s been tried before. It kills mass transit funding, destroys environmental review of transportation projects, mandates oil drilling on both coasts and in Alaska—it takes every bad idea that’s ever been out there and moves it one step further.”

Forget bicycle funding if the House version of the transportation bill becomes law. (Flickr photo by Ken Mayer)
Forget bicycle funding if the House version of the transportation bill becomes law. (Flickr photo by Ken Mayer)

In the normal course of things, 20 percent of the funding for the Highway Trust Fund (paid for with gas taxes) goes to the Mass Transit Account (launched in 1982, when Reagan was president). That’s why we still have Amtrak, some bike trails and light rail in some American cities. But the House bill, called the “American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act,” takes the account out of the transportation trust fund and tosses it, with no money attached, into the general fund.

Interestingly enough, the bill—dubbed a “big wet kiss for conservatives” by one of the country’s principal highway lobbyists, Greg Cohen—has actually been somewhat of a flop on the far right. It’s been criticized by, among others, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Reason Foundation, and the Club for Growth.

The bill doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of getting enacted. The Senate is working on a truly bipartisan transportation bill that is probably irreconcilable with the House version. Obama would undoubtedly veto any bill that looks even vaguely like what the House is likely to pass. But in the big, wet kiss department it probably succeeds. To damage another metaphor, it’s like throwing red meat to Tea Party voters. The end result would be more air pollution, more bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the death of trains in America (one proposed amendment specifically defunds Amtrak). And exactly how it creates jobs doing anything other than pouring asphalt for new pavement is beyond my undoubtedly feeble powers of comprehension.

Here are the Top Ten reasons why the Bike League hates the transportation bill:

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