By on August 14, 2015

Might as well admit it: I have an unhealthy fascination with the service known as car2go. It’s just so… improbable. I’m pretty sure it began as a way to dump some Smart “ForTwo” inventory into service so the Daimler-Benz lines could keep operating at something like capacity. Since its inception, the service has been in near-constant flux: adding and removing services, changing the fees in predictable and unpredictable ways, suffering service outages, and generally perplexing its customer base, of which I am a devoted and unusually enthusiastic member.

car2go‘s newest change, communicated to me via email yesterday, concerns a significant reduction in their service area. After confirming that my usual lunch runs remain possible, I thought no more about it.

For a while, anyway.


In the eight months since I joined the service, I’ve never used car2go for anything more substantial than a trip to lunch or the library. And since Columbus, Ohio came up with the idea of converting thirty-eight meter spaces throughout the city to single-annual-fee motorcycle parking, my need for a car2go has significantly diminished. This upcoming winter, however, when I have to drive my car downtown and take an early-morning space in a garage that fills by 9 a.m. and therefore effectively locks me out of using said car until I leave for the day, I’m likely to return to the ranks of frequent car2go users.

In that sense, car2go is to me what the idea of marriage was to the writer Mary Gordon: “a harbor into which one may sail in and out as one wishes, in perfect safety and confidence.” When I need it, I use it. When I don’t, I don’t. And unlike Zipcar, there is no annual fee or minimum usage, so I pay nothing to have the option available. Not a bad deal, really. In that respect, it’s much like public transport. As an example, I find myself using the subways in New York City perhaps a dozen times a year, if that. It would be ridiculous for me to pay any sort of annual fee for access to the subway. I assume that my use of the subway fits into a pattern of usage that is calculated and accounted for by the shadowy masters of the MTA and that therefore I am free to rely on the subway’s existence while offering it no security or assurances in return.

I’d be remiss if I did not contrast that to the uneasy relationship most Americans have with their employers in the modern world, where we are expected to sacrifice everything from our health to our relationships with our children to obey the employer’s every whim while at the same time passively accepting the employer’s right to terminate us the minute we are what The Wire’s Avon Barksdale referred to as a little slow, a little late. “And how,” Barksdale asks his cousin, “you ain’t gonna never be slow? Never be late? You can’t plan through no shit like this, man. It’s life.” We live our dingy-collar lives tied to our employers through a “Bring Your Own Device” policy that charges us with the responsibility of paying for our own 24/7 electronic shackles and expects us to be grateful as a result.

“I’m so happy,” a friend of mine said, as she waved around an iPhone that cost her six hundred dollars and which she primarily used to read her work email, “that I don’t have to carry two phones around all day.” But do any of us remember the day when we carried around no phones at all? Oh, well. If you don’t like it, vote for Bernie Sanders, assuming anybody is going to let him finish a speech in the near future without treating him like Kanye treated Taylor Swift. Back to the matter at hand.

I do not depend on car2go. But that does not mean that nobody depends on car2go. For some people who live in the service area and primarily need a car to travel to work or run occasional errands, it could replace a personally owned car. You can do the math like this. Let’s say you live three miles from your job. When the weather is good, you walk. Two days a week in most seasons and four days a week in winter, you use car2go. By my calculations, using car2go you can expect to pay about $1,100 a year for those trips. Add a weekly shopping trip of similar distance and you’re up to $1,500. If you work downtown in any city with a parking density issue, which is pretty much everywhere but Detroit nowadays, it’s cheaper to take the car2go to and from work than it is to park your own car downtown. In fact, I can’t think of any scenario where someone can own, operate, and insure an automobile of any reliability whatsoever for $1,500 a year.

For our hypothetical users, car2go functions much like public transportation. But it’s better, because it runs on your schedule, it’s flexible, and it’s far safer than taking public transportation. Particularly at night, and particularly if you’re not the master of nine martial arts and a champion of the Frank Dux Underground Kumite that I know every single reader of the B&B probably is. So I’m not surprised to read that people have sold their cars to rely on the service.

With the recent service-area shrinkages in Columbus and many other car2go cities, however, some of those people are now out in the cold. And since “moovel”, the Daimler spinoff that operates car2go, is a private service, there’s no appealing this decision. You aren’t going to go to a town hall meeting and get your car2go back the way you and your neighbors might be able to pressure a transit authority into restoring service to a particular area. There are numerous benefits to car2go’s private status — the fact that homeless people don’t defecate in the cars they way they do in and around public transit in San Francisco is one of them — but the downside is that you’re just the customer, not a stakeholder in the enterprise.

The nice people at car2go have the right to change their service area to exclude six percent of their customers, the same way FedEx has the right to tell you they can’t or won’t deliver to a certain address too far away from their offices. But it’s a worthwhile reminder of two facts. The first fact is that, for those who can afford it, there is absolutely no substitute for privately owned transportation. No public or part-time solution will ever match the convenience of getting in your own car and going where you want to go on your timeline. And while I understand that doing so is intergalactically expensive in Manhattan and Los Angeles and Chicago, for most of the country it’s so much better than any of the alternatives that virtually any sacrifice is justified to keep it.

The second fact is this: we live now in a world where “disruptive enterprises” like Uber move faster and travel lighter than any publicly-operated competition or governmental regulation can predict or anticipate. As the forces aligned against private automobile ownership gain strength and momentum, we are no doubt going to hear how it’s totally fine for you, Joe Average, to abandon your car in favor of roving electric taxis or cloud-computed ride-sharing services or surge-demand rentals or human-scale Amazon drones or who knows what. But before you turn in your keys for the last time, think long and hard about the fine print in your submission. What is convenient and profitable today might not be convenient and profitable tomorrow. When you hand over your travel sovereignty to parties unknown, make sure they’ll come when you call, okay?

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46 Comments on “No Fixed Abode: Whatcha Gonna Do When They Don’t Come For You?...”


  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Zipcar costs me a monthly ‘membership’ fee of about $7. Could pay slightly less if I converted to an annual fee.

    Since our oldest child moved out, we have maintained a Zipcar membership for her. The primary reason being that once she gets her own vehicle, she has a continuous insurance record.

    Here in Ontario if you allow your insurance to lapse for even a short period, (foreign vacation, no vehicle, etc) your insurer may then charge you the equivalant of ‘new driver’ rates. In this instance, it would probably amount to two to three times more than a continually insured driver.

    And as she drives so little, she should also be eligible for a ‘safe driver’ discount.

    • 0 avatar
      thirty-three

      That’s insane! Here in BC, if you hold a driver’s license for 10 years and have a clean record, you will qualify for the maximum insurance discount (43%). Doesn’t matter if you never own or drive a car during those 10 years, you still get the discount.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Shhhhhhhhhhh!.

        If our American friends realize that out in British Columbia your car insurance is through a government agency and you have universal medical care, they may close off the borders to prevent your communist ideals from contaminating their free enterprise system.

        In Ontario with over 40 years of driving, one ticket in the past 35 years and one at fault accident in the past 38 years, I still pay over $4k annually for insurance. With a $1k deductible. That does include 3 cars, my wife and 3 kids (who are occasional drivers and live away from home during the school year).

        If I moved out of my part of the GTA it would decrease by about 20%.

        A very good reason for a young driver to join Zipcar etc. A male under 25 trying to insure themselves as the primary driver on even a beater is probably looking at a minimum of $5k annually.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          “In Ontario with over 40 years of driving, one ticket in the past 35 years and one at fault accident in the past 38 years, I still pay over $4k annually for insurance. With a $2k deductible.”

          Wowzers

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Auto insurance rates have pretty much killed any existing car culture in Southern Ontario for the young

            A kid may still be able to buy a suitable beater or project car, but the insurance could be at least as much annually as the purchase price of the vehicle.

            Thus the popularity of auto sharing, Uber and the move to the downtown core. Toronto may be unique in that the population of the downtown core has actually grown (astronomically) over the past decade. More condos being built than anywhere not named Shanghai. The streets are full day and night of young, mostly single professionals. And now young families, being raised in 750 sq ft or smaller condos, with no parking garages. The suburban home with 2 cars in the drive is no longer the ideal.

            A small typo in my original entry, our deductible is only $1k.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Why is the cost so excessive?

      • 0 avatar

        Once again confirming that my move to Vancouver next year (from Montreal) is absolutely the right one. Aside from housing costs.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Montreal is not a nice place?

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            Re: high insurance rates. Because the insurance companies can get away with it?

            1) Insurance is mandatory in Ontario, you cannot operate a vehicle without it.
            2) There is a ‘no fault’ requirement, which means that regardless of whose fault it is, you deal with your own insurance company and they then thrash out the costs with the other party’s insurance company.
            3) The GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is either the 3rd or 4th by population in North America (either just above or below Chicago and below New York and LA) and seems to have a disproportionate amount of bad drivers, gridlock and accidents. The later may partially be the result of Toronto having longer/harsher winters than the other major urban centres in North America.

  • avatar
    zamoti

    Couple of things:
    When I was in SFO a while back, I had a HELL of a hard time trying to find a place to groan out a deuce even if I was willing to buy something, so that the homeless back one out on the BART isn’t really a surprise (unless you get to watch).
    Big ups for the Wire.
    Bigger ups for the middle finger to BYOD.
    Finally, people do have an odd fascination with Car2Go. I have a friend who has ZERO use for it, but still loves it. He’s over 6’4″ though and I think he just likes stuffing himself in there and driving around because it’s absurd to do so.
    I figured those things would do really well with the students here and it surprises me that they’re trimming back; however that map seems to make sense given where most students live.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “When I need it, I use it. When I don’t, I don’t.”

    This line resonated with me, because my mother and grandma both talk this way, all the time. I’m not sure if they just feel the need to fill empty silences, but they’ll say sentences like this with absolute seriousness, often.

    “Well, if we get there early, then we will be. If we don’t, then we won’t!”
    “If they show up, then they will be there. And if they don’t, they won’t be!”
    “When you get pulled over you might get a ticket – but if you don’t get pulled over, you won’t!”

    I’m like yes thank you, obvious statements are obvious. Drives me nuts.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “In fact, I can’t think of any scenario where someone can own, operate, and insure an automobile of any reliability whatsoever for $1,500 a year.”

    Not trying to be all contradictory, but I bet I get close. No car payment.

    Registration/yr incl custom license plate in Ohio = $110 (could cut off $50 if I had a regular plate)
    Insurance/yr = $552
    3.3 miles 1-way commute, assuming 52 weeks a year = 1716 miles. At 19mpg and on $3.59 premium fuel = $324 I don’t do that much other driving, really, but 529 miles will cost me $100 if I’m only getting 19mpg, so add that in. = $424

    That’s $1086, leaving me nearly $500 annually for other driving and maintenance. I barely need an oil change once per year, at $35. Had my brakes redone after having the car two years for $787. No timing belt etc. I’d say the depreciation I’m experiencing is discounted by time, stress, and inconvenience saved by owning my own car.

    :)

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Alright — but I suspect that if the car was not a gift, and you amortize the purchase price over the number of years you’ve had it, you will come closer to that $1500.

      Even a five-thousand-dollar car, paid off in the first five years, still has a cost of five hundred dollars a year if you keep it ten.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        This is true, I bought it myself. I always view things I own outright as just a sunk cost. That money isn’t in my bank account any more, and I don’t have a payment, so it’s even.

        Wrong per accounting standards, I know.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          Man I DO NOT miss Ohio.

          My personalized plate was $17 more than a regular registration.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Oh go get a heavy car and pay more for your registration or whatever! Lol, it’s very cheap to register cars here. The punitive cost for the vanity plate is just something I wanted to do.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            No I’m just laughing at the “doubling of the registration fee” just because if you want a vanity plate you should be able to afford it.

            But then NM doesn’t do a lot of “causes” plates, mostly just State Colleges and Historical Anniversaries (400 years since the founding of Santa Fe, 100 years of statehood, etc.)

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            It’s all that extra money they make up for with speeding fines?

            I just really wanted my plate to say ERMEGRD, and now it does. :D

          • 0 avatar
            zamoti

            I swear I saw that plate a while back, but I recall it being attached to a WRX. Might have been from another state wasn’t paying that close attention.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Must have been a different state.

        • 0 avatar
          ect

          Yeah, it’s a cost, and you need to amortize it (with interest) over the period of ownership.

          It’s not about accounting, it’s about understanding what you financial decisions actually cost you.

          When we moved to Toronto, we looked at the cost of living in the city vs. the ‘burbs. I worked out that the cost of running a C$30,000 car ran to about $1,000 per month – in after-tax dollars, so it consumed about $20,000 p.a. in pre-tax income.

          Putting that money into a house in the city (which in Toronto appreciates about 6-8% p.a., on average) made a lot more sense than buying a second car and living in the ‘burbs

      • 0 avatar

        I actually did just receive a car as a gift. And it’s costing me almost $1200 just to get the stuff required to pass the safety inspection so I can legally register it in my state.

        (It’s a ’98 Plymouth Voyager that my parents decided they didn’t need anymore. They took good care of it and had replaced a bunch of stuff, but it still failed inspection for 4 different things, including 2 tires that were dry-rotted from age and, most annoyingly, “rust”. I wanted the van because I have a side business selling on eBay and at swap meets, and I’ve been beating the crap out of the interior of my daily driver Pathfinder. The Voyager will hold more, and not make me cry when the plastic gets scuffed).

        There really is nothing more expensive than a cheap car. Free cars are free like free puppies.

    • 0 avatar
      anti121hero

      You paid 800 dollars for brakes? Wow.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        The rear rotors had to be replaced (very rusty apparently), the fronts needed turned. $787 also included an oil change and tire rotation, btw.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        My wife’s ’06 Forrester brake job came in at a hair over $800. Front and rear, had to replace the hardware on the rear drums as all the seals were blown. Actually I was surprised she had any rear brake power at all as much as they were leaking. Front rotors turned, front and rear pads. That was at one of the most reasonable, if not THE most reasonable mechanic within a 100 mile radius of Seattle.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        If all four rotors are bad on a luxury car with big rotors, and new pads are also needed all around, I could see that coming out to $800 minus an oil change.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        My son just bought the parts for the brakes on the front of his Panther and the bill was almost $400 with the tax though about $40 of that is core charges which will be refunded. They were the top of the line parts so it could have been done for much less but it definitely needed rotors and one caliper was a touch sticky, so that accounted for $90+ tax and core charge.

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      Not that it was accounted for in the original hypothesis either, but you haven’t taken the cost of parking into account. Depending on the density of your region, it might make sense to use Car2Go to not have to pay for parking – offhand, I believe it’s $25 a day where my wife works. Getting one of their quasi-guaranteed spots is decent too.

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    Jack, I see car2go and Zipcar (I have the latter, there is no former where I live, I mainly used Zipcar to abuse their bimmers and audis in manhattan years ago) as essentially public ownership permeated through a version of what could be called shared ownership (plus, of course, potential corporate profit). Either way, I don’t think the most important issue is private ownership vs shared ownership, but density vs sprawl and concomitant travel patterns that ultimately determine the bernie-sanders-in-capitalistic-cloak enterprises like car2go vs private ownership.

    Now can you park car2go elsewhere like the Citibikes in NY? I dream about the day Zipcar solves that logistical nightmare.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    …But it’s a worthwhile reminder of two facts. The first fact is that, for those who can afford it, there is absolutely no substitute for privately owned transportation. No public or part-time solution will ever match the convenience of getting in your own car and going where you want to go on your timeline. And while I understand that doing so is intergalactically expensive in Manhattan and Los Angeles and Chicago, for most of the country it’s so much better than any of the alternatives that virtually any sacrifice is justified to keep it.

    The second fact is this: we live now in a world where “disruptive enterprises” like Uber move faster and travel lighter than any publicly-operated competition or governmental regulation can predict or anticipate. As the forces aligned against private automobile ownership gain strength and momentum, we are no doubt going to hear how it’s totally fine for you, Joe Average, to abandon your car in favor of roving electric taxis or cloud-computed ride-sharing services or surge-demand rentals or human-scale Amazon drones or who knows what. But before you turn in your keys for the last time, think long and hard about the fine print in your submission. What is convenient and profitable today might not be convenient and profitable tomorrow. When you hand over your travel sovereignty to parties unknown, make sure they’ll come when you call, okay…

    This. Especially this.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick_515

      I think Jack is wrongly implying that the forces that promote shared ownership operate out of their volition. They are, in fact, responding to very real – yes, market-created – problems with private automobile ownership. So hailing its continued virtues reduces the applicability of this argument to the people that can still afford to eschew services like this. For how long can a lot of people continue to do that? That’s the question.

  • avatar
    AlfaRomasochist

    I use Denver Car2Go infrequently, and mostly for the same reason – it’s cheaper than paying for parking twice if I have to run an errand during the day. The boundary ends a bit more than a mile from my house, so while I’ve used it to commute once or twice it doesn’t really make sense. I can bike to work in under 30 mins, so it doesn’t make sense to drive most of the way then walk 20 minutes at the end.

    It goes without saying that the spudly little Smart is an abomination to drive. The only joy I get out of the experience is wringing it out hard enough to get the message threatening to terminate my Car2Go account. I think I’ve managed the trick every time, with nary a peep from the nice folks at C2G.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Life under the progressives: every day is better than the next.

    • 0 avatar
      wolfinator

      Yup. Nothing like ‘progressives’ to ruin a privately run capitalist business like car2go. If only ‘the progressives’ had not dictated that they shrink their service area, we’d be living in a transportation utopia!

      Gawd, what do they feed you? A straight diet of lead chips?

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Here in Seattle, where we have urban density in many hoods but are still trying (slowly) to build urban-style public transit, the challenge for car2go has been to meet demand. They recently expanded to cover the whole city, and they can’t get enough cars on the road fast enough. If you live anywhere with paid parking and public transit of reasonable quality, transit + car2go is almost certainly cheaper — in most cases MUCH cheaper — than private vehicle ownership. There’s also another class of users who have used it to scale back from two family cars to one.

    And if they fail or scale back, it’s not like you’re stuck permanently. You can always go out and buy a vehicle. You wrote the last paragraph as though the decision to go car-free is permanent and irreversible.

  • avatar
    Xeranar

    Woah….I read the entire article and I was surprised how honest and even handed it was then scrolled up and read it was written by Baruth (who has personally come down to the comments to scold me for my thoughts in the past). Whatever Jack may be he just moved up about 3 notches in my book for writing such an amazing piece. Sometimes communitarians (not Communists, please re-read that before you get frustrated, Gramps) can align with the hardcore individualists on these issues. The car-sharing service idea is a good one and while inefficient for public transit it could certainly actually be a public-private partnership or even a fully public service.

    Arguably a bus is more efficient when dealing with mass quantities, the cost per mile if all seats or even a 1/2 the seats are full per route is going to destroy normal cars but in a more suburban low-rise city a car-sharing public service could gain real traction. Especially if the service was priced simply to exist, a public good paid for by the public at large to help those who are under served. It would also be far less investment in practical terms than installing a rail-based MTS (though that is the best return on investment according to most studies) and would have less road impact and traffic impact than more buses on more routes (since a bus is nominally 3 of these small cars and they operate at random intervals). So while it may take more careful monitoring to fulfill that kind of program and the lack of licensing in poorer communities could be a restraint but it would serve as a nice in-between for limited services in the more distant zones in a city.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    “Whatcha Gonna Do When They Don’t Come For You?”

    Heh… this is what I ask of every middle-class conspiracy nut and police-state crier I encounter. Ironic that it titles an article written by one of them. Life always trumps fiction.

  • avatar
    Minnesota Nice

    I frequently used the free Car2Go membership given to all Target Corporate employees (prior to the 1,700 person layof in March, which forced me to relocate to Milwaukee for work – talk about a step backward in cities, moving from Minneapolis).

    Milwaukee rant aside (no really, it’s not nearly as good as Minneapolis), the Car2Go membership was exceptionally handy. I lived downtown and while it was only a mile to work, I was still far enough away from the skyway entry to justify how miserably cold it gets in the winter walking outside. When I didn’t Uber (which I stopped after all the awful cab driver’s started), I used the Car2Go. It was convenient, but I could see how it adds up price wise.

    The only issue I ever had with it was the day of a big meeting. I had found a spot outside of Target HQ, parked it, and the car absolutely would not end the trip. I ended up sitting out there in -20 below weather for close to 35 minutes on the phone with Car2Go, who pretty much had me hop on one leg, sing a song backwards, and do a snow dance to get the car to find ‘signal.’

    I never used it again after that, but when I go back and visit, I plan on it…just not in the winter.

  • avatar
    MattDuffy

    I was actually pretty happy with Car2Go when I first signed up two years ago. The service has gotten steadily worse since then. Prices kept going up. Additional fees kept appearing.

    The final straw was that in August they drastically reduced the area where the cars are available, which means my home in South Denver is no longer anywhere near anywhere you can use a Car2Go.

    Of course, Car2Go stubbornly refuses to issue me a refund, reserving its right to “increase or decrease the size of, amend, suspend, or terminate its operating areas in North America.”

    Don’t make the same mistake I did! Use Uber or Lyft or public transportation instead — it’s cheaper, and as an added bonus, you won’t have to drive the car yourself.


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