Sandra Worman loves public transit. Though she and her husband own two cars, she travels by bus and trolley as often as possible and can recite all the local lines and schedules off the top of her head. She credits her mother, who was born and raised in Germany, for instilling in her a European appreciation for communal transportation. But, living in San Diego, Worman can't rely completely on the bus and trolley to take her to each and every destination. So Worman's looking to add car-sharing to her menu of transportation options.
Car-sharing companies have emerged in big cities across the country, creating a bridge between public transportation and contemporary car culture by allowing people to travel solo without the financial commitment of auto ownership.
With Flexcar, currently the only car-sharing company in San Diego, members pay a $40 annual fee and are billed monthly for their chosen amount of hours. (Plans range from five to more than 100 hours a month, with unlimited mileage.) For roughly $9 an hour, Flexcar pays for gas, oil, maintenance, premium insurance and 24-hour roadside assistance. The vehicles, mostly hybrid Honda Civics, are docked in and around downtown in public lots and parking garages. Members make reservations online up to 10 minutes ahead of time and then walk up to the car, swipe a Flexcard and go on their way.
Think it sounds too good to be true? CityBeat went along for a few rides to find out.
The first Flex
Worman is a personal assistant in her early 30s, but with her nose ring, peace-sign tattoo and Star Wars backpack, she could easily pass as a free-spirited student. A Flexcar virgin, she's signed up for a trial period of five hours a month. If all goes well, she'll give some serious thought to selling her second car.
She wants to make the most of the day, so she arrives at the downtown Wells Fargo parking garage equipped with a digital camera, a typed itinerary and her father.
As if he were sending his little girl off to the prom, Dad proudly snaps photos to take home to Mom as his only child climbs into a Flexcar for the first time.
Before starting the car, the two give the Honda Element a thorough once-over. Worman finds what she considers major flaws in its design but nonetheless pats the car affectionately and calls it “she” the rest of the day.
Worman takes the key from the glove box, enters her pin number on the dash, starts the car and exits the garage without incident. On the way to her first errand, she admits she's disappointed that she can't get her account credited for returning the car early, which means she'll have to know, in advance, how long she'll need the car.
After a quick stop at her downtown apartment, Worman takes the Flexcar to a nearby gas station. The tank isn't empty, but she wants to learn all the ropes in advance. Worman isn't allowed to let the gas go below a quarter tank, but she never has to pay for it. Any time she needs to fill the tank, she can use the gas card that's in the visor of every Flexcar. It's good at most big-name gas stations, but-predictably-can be used only for fuel.
“I guess that means no Cheetos,” Worman jokes as she swipes the card.
After taking Dad sightseeing at his old Navy base and the Cabrillo National Monument, she heads back to the garage. Ruminating about her future with Flexcar, Worman says the advance planning required to get errands done efficiently within a pre-determined time span will be difficult.
A few months after her first outing, Worman checks back in to say that she's still very happy with Flexcar.
“It turns out there is a hybrid Flexcar two blocks from my house, so that's very convenient,” she says. “[Other] people who live downtown are walking farther to get to the place where they have their actual car stashed than I am to the Flexcar.”
Worman proudly reports that, thanks to Flexcar, she and her husband have sold their gas-chugging Chevy Tahoe. She was also pleased to discover that she has the freedom to extend her hours while she still has the car, which mitigates the problem of not being able to get credit for bringing the car back early. Now she simply estimates the minimum amount of time she'll need, and extends that time if necessary.
Worman says she was able to use Flexcar on a recent stay in Portland, Ore., and has now set up her account to give her full access in L.A. any time she visits.
Flexing at all ages
Lyle Davidson is a spry retired property manager in his mid-70s who's been a Flexcar member since early 2004. Chatty, energetic and nimble, Davidson's mannerisms belie his age. He grins impishly as he professes that he's a “socialist at heart” and confides that every week he brings a stack of CityBeats into his retirement home to rile up the other residents.
As he has every Thursday since he joined Flexcar, Davidson is taking his wife Evelyn grocery shopping in Hillcrest. He reserves the same Flexcar at the public parking lot on the corner of Third and Ash streets every week-he can see it from his apartment at Luther Towers downtown.
He helps Evelyn into the back seat as he recounts the details of his life since he joined Flexcar. He'd heard about it from his granddaughter-a member in Washington, D.C.-and decided to join once the repairs on his '98 Honda started coming in multiples of $500. Now he's on Flexcar's 25-hour plan, which costs about $235 a month, but he still takes the bus and trolley for outings that don't involve groceries or other heavy loads.
Davidson climbs into the front seat, scoots it back to accommodate his long frame and adjusts his cabbie hat. As he heads out of the parking lot, he mentions that one of the things he likes best about Flexcar is that he always gets to drive a new ride that's in top condition.
Despite the fact that he no longer has to worry about repairs or reliability, when he gets to Henry's he still makes an effort to park the Flexcar out of the sun, which suggests that being considerate-like being organized-is another helpful quality for potential Flexcar members.
It turns out that not being considerate has monetary repercussions. Flexcar members can be charged $200 plus costs if an emergency cleaning is required before the vehicle's next appointment.
Not surprisingly, Davidson says that with the exception of a pack of doggie diapers that are still traveling in the trunk, he's always found the Flexcar clean and free of others' belongings.
As Davidson helps load the groceries into the trunk, he thinks about why more retirees haven't made the switch from owning a vehicle to traveling by Flexcar.
Technologically savvy for a man past 70, Davidson supposes that the online reservation system might be more difficult for others of his generation, most of whom aren't used to navigating the Internet on a daily basis.
On the way back to Luther Towers, Davidson says most people don't have a clue how much their car is costing them. When asked what it might take to get more people on board, he ponders and then responds, “Maybe they're waiting for gas to go up to $10.”
Flexing at work
A young intern architect, Tim Novara, arrives early at the downtown Wells Fargo lot. On that particular day, he's using the Flexcar to get to a meeting of the Young Architects Commission in Barrio Logan. Unlike Worman and Davidson, who have personal memberships, Novara uses Flexcar through his company's corporate account.
Flexcar “has helped everyone in the office not have to drive to work,” says Novara, who usually rides his bike from his home in Point Loma to his office downtown.
Having grown up in Illinois, Novara says the weather in San Diego is a major advantage for Flexcar, since walking and bicycling are year-round alternatives to driving.
Novara slides on his shades as he pulls out of the darkness of the parking garage. He sheepishly admits that he still owns a car but swears he doesn't drive that often and says he'd eventually love to live without it.
As he nears Barrio Logan, Novara says he thinks Flexcar is “convenient, easy and simple,” adding with a smile, “Of course, I don't handle the billing.”
While his employers do pay the monthly bill, it's Novara's job to reserve the Flexcar when he needs it and make sure it's clean and ready for its next member. Other than a few problems with short-term availability, Novara can't remember any other snags he's encountered while using Flexcar.
Novara's company, Warner Architecture & Design, isn't the only San Diego business that's made the switch from company cars to a corporate Flexcar membership.
Austin Veum Robbins & Partners is another architectural firm that has a business account. Michelle Green, assistant to the chief financial officer, says the company signed up with Flexcar two years ago when the time came to add a second vehicle to the fleet.
“[Compared to] the cost of an actual company car, the maintenance, the insurance... it just seemed so much easier, more convenient,” recalled Green. “The fact that there were more vehicles available versus just one company car... we've never not had a car available to us when we needed it.”
Not so Flexible
The ride-along survey suggests that the likeliest Flexcar members live and work in the downtown area, in the vicinity of the bulk of the fleet. But for those who live farther from downtown, Flexcar might not be so convenient.
David Rhodes, a holistic health practitioner who lives in University Heights, tried Flexcar for a month before he decided it wasn't saving him any money. Rhodes, who doesn't own a car, says getting to and from the Flexcar locations turned out to be a significant hang-up. He found it too time-consuming to take the bus, so he wound up paying for cabs to take him to the Flexcars.
Rhodes said Flexcar works fine for a two or three-hour period but pointed out that for longer periods of time or overnight, it's not as cost-efficient.
“I found it was more economical to use a regular rental-car service,” said Rhodes, who likes the free pick-up and drop-off offered by Enterprise and some other rental-car companies.
If mass transit in San Diego were to expand, it would be much easier to get by with just a Flexcar membership, Rhodes posits. His intuition is borne out by the facts-Flexcar's business is exponentially greater in cities like Seattle and Washington, D.C., where mass transit is more integrated into daily life.
“The reality is that most of San Diego's transit passengers are poor, disabled [and] elderly,” says Paul Blackburn, acting director of Move San Diego, a nonprofit that works to increase the city's transportation options.
But Blackburn believes that's going to change, maybe sooner than you think.
“What we're going to see over time is increasing fuel prices,” he says. “As fuel prices increase, people will be priced out of owning a car at all... so that means that more and more people will need to have other kinds of alternatives to owning cars.”
Flexing in the future
Seattle, where Flexcar originated, has more than 200 vehicles evenly spread throughout its different districts. It appears to be one of the highest concentrations of shared vehicles in any U.S. city. But given its urban-sprawl car culture, can San Diego ever expect to see that kind of distribution?
“Car sharing works best where there's high density and parking problems,” explained Flexcar residential program manager Jordana Beebe. This is especially true for downtown and surrounding areas, where extensive redevelopment seems to herald a worsening of those issues.
Beebe is pushing to expand Flexcar's locations uptown and to the beaches but says the biggest hurdle is getting the city to embrace the concept and replace metered parking spots with permanent Flexcar locations.
Without any competition from the other car-sharing companies that are popping up around the U.S., it seems likely that Flexcar will only continue to grow in San Diego.
Starting out downtown in 2002 with only two Honda Civics, Flexcar has since expanded its fleet to more than 30 vehicles. And thanks to a recent interest and investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case, Flexcar now has quite a bit more dough to spend on marketing and the acquisition of more cars. Slowly creeping beyond the downtown area, Flexcars can now be found in Hillcrest, Bankers Hill and Sorrento Valley, and a few more are slated to appear on the UCSD campus in January.
Sure, there are downsides to car sharing. You can't smoke, make a mess, bring your dog along for the ride or take any impromptu cross-country road trips. So perhaps it's time to enjoy the freedom of being the sole passenger in your seven-seater SUV while you still can, because in the future, you may not have the choice.
“I don't think people are going to voluntarily change their patterns or habits because they want to do what's arguably ‘the right thing,'” Blackburn concludes. “I think that what's going to change is that at some point more and more people will be forced to change whether they want to or not.”