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Eugene Weekly : News : 3.18.10

Urban Mobility

Getting around without owning a car

By Rick Levin

For recent Eugene transplant Branden Richel, the idea of starting up a not-for-profit car share cooperative in Lane County is hardly the end-all-be-all of alternative transportation. It’s more the case, he says, that being a member of a car share is but one incremental though important step in the right direction, as a means of reducing the sheer number cars clogging the roads, as a way of inspiring people to seek other modes of transportation, and of giving them an economical and attractive alternative to owning a car with all the expense and headache that comes with it.

Branden Richel

Car sharing is described by The Car Sharing Network as “a revolution in personal transportation” that augurs a new type of “urban mobility for the 21st century.” This particular form of car rental, of which corporate rent-to-borrow models like Hertz and Avis are practically the antithesis, is based on the idea that there are scads of people who need only occasional use of an automobile, whether it be to grocery shop, enjoy a weekend drive to the coast or take the kids to the dentist. Underpinning this model is a fiscal pragmatism that says, in blunt terms of cost analysis, “Why own a car when, for many if not most drivers, the expenses outweigh the use value?”

Richel, 31, is currently in the beginning to middle stages of founding a not-for-profit car share co-op, Lane Car Share, which he’s basing on the “model that worked so well in Victoria.” While working as a delivery person in that part of Canada, he says he used car share to augment his bicycle deliveries, and before long Richel went from being a car share member to working as a full-time fleet manager. 

“It’s just expanded like crazy in the last few years across North America,” he says of car shares, which caught on first in Europe and which Richel calls “the missing piece of the transportation puzzle,” especially in the vehicle-centric design of most U.S. cities.

Car shares aren’t for everybody, Richel says, though for a big chunk of the population they do offer a reliable service that is “a whole lot cheaper than rentals for short trips,” while also providing, via the co-operative set up, a sense of personal investment that is attractive to a lot of folks looking to save money as well as to reduce their carbon footprint. One of the encouraging side effects of member co-ops, he adds, is that “people take better care of the cars when they are part owners.”

“It’s not a dramatic revolution,” Richel says of the growth of car shares nationwide, “but it’s the best way to get people to drive less and use alternative transportations,” such as biking, walking or riding public transportation. In this regard, car sharing can be perceived not as a diminishment but as an expansion of options for getting around. Granted, the model is inherently limited and self-limiting, but that’s the point — to force chronic drivers to rethink and then revamp their means of mobility. “To be a car share member, you need to be dependent on the buses,” Richel says.

Lane Car Share membership would involve a review of an applicant’s driving record, a tutorial on how to use the vehicles, the possession of an access card, and various other agreed-upon terms and regulations; Richel, who found the $400 membership fee for the Victoria car share prohibitive, said he envisions a one-time membership fee of somewhere around $100, with minimal monthly fees that would cover administrative costs, vehicle upkeep and paperwork. “It’s about being cost effective,” he says, noting that appealing to the pocket book could be a major selling point for people dealing with a frayed economy. “That’s the best thing I can do right now.”

Richel’s ideal program is the nonprofit currently in place in Philadelphia, which sports some 100,000 members and whose mission statement includes the ambition to provide car sharing to the entire city. Richel says it will take at least two, perhaps three cars (purchased, likely new, with an eye to reliability and safety, and preferably four-door models for convenience) to get the co-op up and running, after which he hopes to add pick-ups and minivans to the fleet. The cars will be kept at various locations around town, and can be reserved with a phone call or on-line. Some form of swipe card or keychain fob will grant access.

Right now, he is creating budget spread sheets, looking into and applying for grants, loans and federal subsidies, searching out potential investors (“the more people who give money, the more people who give money,” is one of Richel’s axioms), talking to lawyers, investigating insurance policies and generally taking the collective pulse on Eugene’s interest in such an organization.

“We’re looking around,” says Richel of drumming up money and support, adding that the soonest he can see things coming together is perhaps October. “We’re patient. The more members we can get the better.” A recent inaugural meeting held a few weeks back proved encouraging, with around 35 folks showing up, “and I only knew five of them,” Richel jokes.

And yet, just because Richel, who moved to Eugene in September with his partner, is taking things slowly, steadily and cautiously, that hardly means he’s lacking drive or any sense of seriousness about what he’s doing. Already Richel has sounded out Mayor Kitty Piercy as well as officials at LTD, and he’s met with people who were part of previous, failed car shares in town, looking for insight and advice. He is also in the process of assembling an advisory board. “We want to demonstrate to potential investors that we can handle all aspects of doing this,” Richel explains. “Everyone’s been really enthusiastic and supportive,” and, he says, he sees “a lot of exciting stuff” taking place, including advances in car share technology itself; for instance, members may be able to walk up to a car-share car and, swiping a card, find out if the thing is available for the next hour.

“I’m a generalist at heart,” Richel says of taking on the care share project (which you can check out at www.lanecarshare.org). “I like doing new things,” he says. Having moved to Eugene with his partner just this past September, Richel says he had the time and energy to take a bite out of the auto-centric (some might even say anti-human) architecture and lay-out of most of our U.S. cities — though, he reiterates, car sharing is only one pried-away tailpipe in a long process of diminishing the choke-hold (pun intended) that cars have on our local and national culture. “It is a step,” he says. “It’s not such a small step that it seems insignificant. It’s large enough.”

For more information, visit www.lanecarshare.org/frequently-asked-questions