HOURCAR: Car sharing for a Greener Planet

Can a car sharing program change the world? The folks at HOURCAR believe it’s a pretty good way to start. “Studies indicate that every shared car takes between 15-20 cars off the road,” says Christopher Bineham of HOURCAR in the Twin Cities. Read on to find out more about the green business of car sharing.

What is HOURCAR?

HOURCAR is a program of a local nonprofit called the Neighborhood Energy Connection, which has been around the Twin Cities for over 25 years. The NEC does energy efficiency work. We have a commitment to reducing pollution, conserving resources and improving the quality of life by offering on-the-ground tools. We’re all about providing people with the means to live energy efficient lives. HOURCAR is an example of that.

How does HOURCAR work?

HOURCAR is a membership program. People join online. Once approved, they receive login information to log into the website or call our 24 hour call center, and a key fob that allows them to access the cars. We have two different membership levels. One has a smaller monthly fee of $5 for use of the vehicles, plus $8 per hour and $.25 per mile. The other plan is $15 per month but then you save per hour and on weekend and daily rates. Those rates include gas, insurance and all the maintenance on the cars. Members make reservations to use a specific car. We have 28 and are on the verge of 29 cars through Minneapolis and St. Paul.

What are some of the benefits of using HOURCAR?

There are the economic benefits of not owning a car. The program is designed for people that don’t need a car every day or who may need a car for just a short time each day. HOURCAR is able to meet their daily transportation needs when you combine it with transit and walking and other methods. Sometimes people look at those rates and initially they seem a bit steep, but we do a cost comparison, and when you factor in all of the extra costs associated with owning a car – the insurance, maintenance, depreciation – the whole up front cost is low. The other thing we see in addition to the direct economic benefits, the hassle of owning a car just isn’t worth it.

Hour CarHow many members do you have?

We have about 1,400. It ranges all the way to people who are using the car a couple times of week but who may only need it for a few hours, short enough that they’re still saving money by using our program rather than owning their own car that they’re only going to use a couple times per week.

How often do members use the cars?

There is about a third of our membership that uses the cars once or twice a year. Then there is another third that is using it pretty regularly, anywhere from a couple times a month to once a week, or even more. Then there is the middle group who uses it maybe once a month or something like that.

Is HOURCAR modeled off anything else?

There are car sharing programs all over the country. Car sharing actually started in Europe and the first programs in North America started in Canada. But there are huge car sharing organizations in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, DC. We certainly work with a lot of those organizations to promote car sharing generally and we have certainly learned a lot from them.

Do you think there is a certain type of community that is more receptive to car sharing programs?

Yes, but it’s been interesting to watch that shift a little bit. Initially it was very much about the environment, which is why NEC is interested in the program. What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is that people just don’t want to spend the money, or have the inconvenience of owning a car. So we’ve moved towards more people that are in it for the money or the lifestyle that it gives them as opposed to the environment.

In terms of the geography, it absolutely relies on having a community that has some density and has a good transit system. Given the concept of the program, we aren’t going to be a person’s primary means of transportation so there has to be other modes. For most people, having access to good transit is at the bedrock. Transit is just so important to community and economic development. As a program, our position is we need to develop our transit system. As transit expands we can place more cars.

Hour CarWhat kind of cars do you use?

We have mainly Toyota Prius cars at this point. We have a number of Honda FITs and a few Honda Insights. We are committed to high efficiency, low emissions vehicles in our fleet. We also think that car sharing is an efficient thing to do, so we’re not necessarily only focusing on hybrids. The act of car sharing is in and of itself environmentally friendly.

How do you find spaces for where the cars go?

We primarily partner with other community organizations. For example, we have cars that are in a Minneapolis public school lot, at the Wedge, Seward and Mississippi Market co-ops, the YWCA, a church and a bank parking lot. We have a number of colleges that we work with that have cars on their campuses. We have a few parking ramps that have cars. We have a couple of neighborhood commissions that have sponsored cars.

Do the cars pay for themselves?

Many of the organizations have actually provided some sponsorship, or a grant to pay for the upfront cost of cars. We are at the 4-5 year market is when HOURCAR started paying for itself in terms of breaking even. For a long time we flirted with break even. It’s more regular now. Not all of the cars pay for themselves. Some of the cars are not paying for themselves at all and others are more than paying for themselves, so the program is paying for itself.

Hour CarHow do you spread the word about HOURCAR?

We do minimal print advertising. We are in the community newspapers and that sort of thing. We are regularly at community events in the neighborhoods where we have cars so we do outreach that way. We are faced with two marketing challenges. We’ve found that people really need to be close to a car for the program to work well for them. That makes marketing a challenge because you can’t really blanket everybody, so we really have to direct it to the areas that we are in. The second challenge is that we find that people need to be ready for car sharing in their life in order for it to work. People can hear about it, hear about it and hear about it, but if they’re not at a point where it works for them, where they’re going to give up a car, or moving to a location where HOURCAR is, then it’s hard to market to them.

Do you use any social media?

We are on Facebook and Twitter. I would say that we are not yet taking full advantage of it. Facebook is our biggest social media focus, so we try to keep a level of engagement on Facebook, to keep people aware it and keep people engaged, so that if they are following us on Facebook that we’re there with some sort of regularity. We use that when we’re placing new cars so we can engage people that have indicated an interest but aren’t members yet.

If someone wanted to start a car sharing program where would you suggest they start?

There are resources online about car sharing that have been put together by car sharing organizations. That’s a great starting place to get a feel for what car sharing is about and what’s needed for it to be successful. Then there are the independent car sharing organizations around the country who are a pretty welcoming and friendly group. You can get a lot of networking and interaction between different car sharing organizations. We looked to bigger organizations when we were getting started and they provided us with all sorts of information and resources and they have a tendency to go above and beyond the call of duty to help get a program started.

Anything else you’d like to add?

People don’t initially realize the environmental significance that car sharing can have. Each of our cars is generally being used from between 30-50 people. Studies indicate that every shared car takes between 15-20 cars off the road. When you add on things like we’re using high efficiency cars, we have cars that are being used by 3-4 different people each day, what that means is that the cars are not being started cold the engine is staying warmer throughout the day. So there can be all sorts of environmental benefits that you don’t really think about.

If you’d like to learn more about HOURCAR, visit their website. You can also find them on Facebook.

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