Is Indianapolis big enough for 'car sharing' concept?

September 19, 2009

An urban advocacy group is trying to bring a big-city concept to Indianapolis: car sharing.

People for Urban Progress cites environmental benefits as well as cost savings for urban dwellers who might find it practical to ditch their seldom-used vehicles.

Such a service could be a selling point for residential developers trying to make downtown a more attractive place to live.

“You don’t have to worry about the extra responsibilities that come with owning a car,” said Michael Bricker, a production designer who co-founded PUP last year.

The group that focuses on projects in public transit, environmental awareness and urban design is better known locally for its work to salvage roof fabric from the demolished RCA Dome.

Car-sharing programs, unlike rental cars, are skewed to hourly rather than daily rentals.

The fleets are operated by a variety of organizations—from not-for-profit groups to private enterprises, such as Cambridge, Mass.-based Zipcar. Even rental car companies have gotten into the game, such as the Connect by Hertz service, which operates in places such as New York and Washington, D.C., and at Ohio State University.

“Rental car companies are kind of catching on that this is a legitimate competition,” said Bricker, whose group is based in the Murphy Arts Building in Fountain Square.

Bricker said PUP members have been exploring the idea as part of discussions with local business, transit and other community leaders.

Car sharing could be a boon for bus service, and for an eventual light-rail line, to the extent it could give a way for prospective riders to reach destinations not served by transit.

The idea is that many who live in the city, who hold onto their car but for those occasional trips, would finally be able to dump their vehicles—and the expenses of maintenance and insurance.

But Indianapolis, despite its growing downtown residential population, is not a first-tier urban setting that would inherently attract a Zipcar or a Connect by Hertz.

“Unless we do an effort like this, car sharing will not come to the city,” said Maryanne O’Malley, a New-York-state native who co-founded PUP with Bricker. A former memory trainer at Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, in 2000-2004 she helped establish Food Bank Kansai.

“I lived in Japan for a while. I’ve always been intrigued at the idea of living in a city and not having a car,” O’Malley said.

Bricker said PUP has had discussions with an Indianapolis developer, whom he declines to identify, about the potential attraction of car sharing to complement urban residential development.

Though some cities such as Chicago offer car sharing through not-for-profit groups, Bricker and O’Malley said a partnership between developers and rental car companies could be a viable way to introduce the service here. One upside to rental car companies is that they’re adept at performing vehicle maintenance and scheduling.

PUP also has been discussing the challenges of introducing car sharing to a second-tier city with a Portland consultant who introduced the first commercial car-sharing program to the U.S. in 1998.

In nearby Chicago, a car-sharing program known as I-Go emerged from the not-for-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology. Without the profit motivation that forces many private firms to focus only on the most densely populated areas, I-Go even serves some suburban areas.

In keeping with the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s emphasis on sustainability, much of I-Go’s fleet consists of hybrid cars, and it’s now looking at introducing plug-in electric cars.

“We think that car sharing is a great way to test out those kinds of vehicles,” spokesman Craig Keller said.

I-Go also forged ties with the Chicago Transit Authority to develop a joint “smart card,” which is not only good to board CTA’s trains and buses but also can be swiped across a windshield-mounted card reader on an I-Go car to gain access.

Like many car-sharing programs, I-Go charges an annual fee and an application fee—$50 and $25, respectively.

It offers several tiers of service, with the cheapest starting at $6.75 per hour and 40 cents a mile.•


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