Two’s Company: Car Sharing Program Challenged by Low Membership, Competition

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It started as an idea: Bring car sharing to Raleigh.

But duplicated efforts to do so have resulted in two separate programs. And as one downtown group advocates for WeCar, the city and local colleges have moved forward with zipcar.

In a market where some wonder if car sharing is feasible, the second question is can both survive?

First Things First
Car sharing enables users to pay an annual fee for access to vehicles. Cars are then borrowed on an hourly, daily or overnight basis. Such programs are common in urban areas where car ownership and parking fees may be cost prohibitive and less attractive for residents with access to multiple public transit options.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which operates WeCar, launched car sharing in downtown Raleigh in 2010 with two vehicles. One sat in front of the West building; the other resides at the Enterprise lot on McDowell Street.

WeCar entered the market with the help and endorsement of the Downtown Living Advocates, a 500-member group representing downtown residents. Originally the DLA approached city officials, who issued a request for proposal that “went nowhere,” according to DLA Chair Brian Reece.

Reece, who doesn’t own and car and lives downtown, said he began working with Enterprise in an effort to serve DLA members.

“We weren’t going to wait on the city,” he said. “We want to do this. [Our attitude was] what can we do? How can we help? We knew we needed some big corporate types to keep this afloat.”

A WeCar is parked at the Enterprise lot on McDowell Street. Photo by Jennifer Wig.

Then There Were Two
Enterprise spokesperson Lisa Martini said WeCar began the program with plans to expand through future partnerships with the city and area universities.

Shortly after the DLA began wooing WeCar, Raleigh officials issued a second request for proposal for car sharing in conjunction with NC State University and Meredith College. WeCar was not selected as the car sharing provider.

Instead, zipcar launched at both colleges in February. Although mainly used by students, the car program is open to the public.

“WeCar was not awarded the contract, which didn’t make sense to me,” Reece said. “Why wouldn’t you try to support that and why would you bring in another car sharing program?”

Governments and universities issue requests for proposals as a way to offer fair competition. NC State Transportation Planner Alison Carpenter said they followed protocol by issuing an RFP and choosing the best provider.

Teaming with Meredith and the city seemed like the best way to offer a uniform service across the community, she said.

“The idea of having reciprocity across the community is really appealing,” Carpenter said. “It would be really nice if it was the same in the downtown Raleigh area, which is why we wanted to join our RFP in 2010.”

Together, officials from the three entities produced a qualification matrix. Zipcar and Hertz Connect were both called for interviews in the end, zipcar was the best choice, Carpenter said.

“We felt that zipcar had a more seamless interface and better provisions in terms of insurance,” she said. “They had higher liability coverage than Hertz.”

Meredith College Sustainability Coordinator Laura Fieselman said zipcar’s smooth interface with Smartphones and large market share nationwide also contributed to their choice.

Two’s Company
WeCar prefers to have at least 50 members to support a vehicle. With WeCar’s Raleigh membership at 22, and no future plans for city participation, WeCar was ready to refocus its efforts. One of the cars was moved last month to Duke University, where WeCar launched a 16-car program. Several hundred people are signed up to use the cars.

At first, Martini told the Record the other car would be relocated soon. But Reece said he is still discussing the issue with city officials. Meanwhile, the WeCar remains parked at Enterprise’s rental lot downtown.

“I want to put WeCar back on the table and see if that is an option,” Reece said. “I’m not sure if it is.”

Although zipcar has launched at both campuses, the city has yet to install cars downtown.

Raleigh Transit Administrator David Eatman said the zipcar contract is under review by city staff.

Zipcar has no scheduled launch date for downtown yet, “but we’d like to think that will be fairly soon,” Eatman said.

“Our biggest delay was trying to work with … dealing with some internal issues with how we would place the vehicles … whether they would be in decks or on street,” he said.

Kathy Molin of the city’s Public Works Department said the program will not need to be approved by City Council. Staff will instead present councilors with information about zipcar’s program, but that presentation has not been scheduled, Molin said.

“We are still continuing to work with the DLA to see if there is support for the [WeCar] program,” Molin said. “I know they want to continue to work with the city and keep it viable.”

Although the city and colleges selected zipcar, the city is not providing a special deal for employees. Having a second service doesn’t prevent anyone from using the other one, Eatman said.

“There are no financial obligations to the contract,” he said. “All we’re doing is providing a place for the vehicles. It’s not really geared toward the city; it’s really geared toward downtown residents or commuters as an alternative.”

Is Raleigh Ready?
Reece said car sharing seemed a gamble. Downtown boasts only about 5,000 residents and most own cars. That may be the reason for WeCar’s low membership numbers. But it’s a service Reece wants offered as downtown grows and becomes more urban.

“The concept is so new,” he said. “That’s the challenge. A lot of people want to do it but they just can’t make that jump of having one car. But most anything that’s considered pioneering, there’s a risk. Just like for all of us moving down into the condo market is a risk. But I think if we continue educating and making the awareness of the program, I think people will start seeing the benefit of it.”

Both Meredith’s Fieselman and NC State’s Carpenter say Raleigh is ready for car sharing.

“I think Raleigh’s ready. I don’t think there’s any doubt in that,” Carpenter said. “I thought when we went through this whole RFP process, the city was going to go into contract pretty soon and we were going to get the ball rolling. I certainly think we’re all ready for it.”

Raleigh may be ready for one program, but two is another matter. WeCar’s Martini said they are “still really interested and looking forward to working with the city of Raleigh.”

But she also said they began “with the hope that we could expand the program once the RFP came out and then do some expansion there,” she said.

With WeCar doing well in Durham and competition on the way, it may just be a matter of time.

Reece plans to meet with city officials Friday to discuss the situation. If nothing else, the Downtown Living Advocates succeeded in bringing car sharing to Raleigh.

“The DLA — we just kind of opened the doors and [wanted to] try to share how important it is to have an amenity like this,” Reece said.

jwig@raleighpublicrecord.org

2 thoughts on “Two’s Company: Car Sharing Program Challenged by Low Membership, Competition

  1. Competition is usually a good thing but yeah I have to wonder if we can support both. I live and work downtown and go days at a time without using a car (biking, walking, R-Line), but still own one since I visit friends in the suburbs, as well as the neighboring Triangle cities (Durham, CH, etc) quite often—and of course occasional trips to family, beach, etc.
    So I’m in their targeted demographic but still have my own car.

  2. I live up near North Hills and do not have a car so at first, I was excited when I heard about the WeCar program. But first, I’d have to get downtown to use it. I was also disappointed that a credit card is required for renting a WeCar when I’m able to rent a regular Enterprise car with a debit card. The site also doesn’t say whether insurance is included in the hourly fee.

    Marketing-wise, I was shocked WeCar did not have an introductory special with a reduced or waived annual fee. I lived in DC when both Flexcar and Zipcar came there, and both did had a special like that to get participants in the program. After all, once people try it and see how easy it is, they’re more likely to keep using it.