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Sharing the Love 

If City CarShare succeeds, San Francisco can have its love affair with the auto and find a place to park

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
The first car I ever drove was a gray, four-door 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 Custom with a six-cylinder engine, a trunk that held five bicycles, and the kind of American-style ride that makes 75 miles per hour feel like a rolling sea. I remember my first time at 100 mph, shuddering as the rushing landscape narrowed my range of visibility to 15 degrees.

Later, working summer nights in Lodi, I would drive home just before sunrise as the full moon set. It was huge, red, and shimmering in a way that seemed to illustrate the sublime nature of driving on an empty freeway. I remember 50-plus-hour drives between Mexico City and California, and a 13-hour stretch of road between Laredo and El Paso that may be the world's straightest path to inner peace.

I love to drive. I love the kick of a big engine just biting into third gear. I love feeling my innards shift starboard through a curve. Heck, I even love the "scan" function on car radios.

But my love wasn't meant to be.

In San Francisco, I have come to realize, car love is a destructive kind of love. That's because automobile ownership is linked to pretty much every malaise suffered by this town. Exploding rents? Nonprofit evictions? The impending extinction of San Francisco's diverse, eclectic character?

At the heart of these is car love.

When most residents of a dense city like San Francisco own cars -- as two-thirds here do -- otherwise charitable-minded citizens unite to keep out new buildings, because new apartments and offices inevitably bring new drivers, who take up parking spaces and clog streets. Neighborhood opposition has severely limited the construction of apartments, and car-spawning commercial space. So apartments are scarce, and residential rents have exploded. Commercial space is unaffordable to all but the venture-capitalized.

To succeed as a vibrant city, it became clear to me, San Francisco had to break the link between increased housing and office space and added cars.

So I had to enlist my intellect, and suppress my love. I got rid of my car. And, after three years of commuting to work by bicycle, time has helped heal the wounds of separation.

Still, on some evenings, I'll stare at the 18-square-foot framed photograph of a 1950s Chevrolet I keep above my fireplace, and remember the pain. I'll indulge in the kind of magical thinking typical of people who've left a bad relationship: Maybe if we got back together things could be different this time. Perchance she's changed. Maybe automobiles aren't so bad.

Right around the time I was engaged in a round of magical-thinking sessions last week, the federal government approved a $600,000 grant to a City Hall-backed program that may allow me to resurrect my car love -- without the dysfunctional side effects. If it lives up to the optimistic plans of Executive Director Elizabeth Sullivan, City CarShare may just help end the relationship between automobile use and our housing and commercial space crunch.

All while letting car saps like me live out our fantasies.

It works like this: Sometime within the next few months -- the federal funds must first be routed through the state government, then through the city's Department of Parking and Traffic -- the nonprofit City CarShare will place 15 metallic-green Volkswagen Beetle GLs at city garages all over the city.

To use the service, I'll have to be approved by City CarShare's insurance company and put down a $300 deposit; but once I'm signed up, going for a midnight drive up Mount Tam will be a mere matter of making a reservation on the CarShare Web site, which will program an electronic box on one of the cars' dashboard to accept my CarShare-issued magnetic key fob. Then, I turn the key and drive, drive, drive, for as little as an hour at a time. At the end of the month I'll be sent a bill including a $10 monthly fee, $1.75 per hour driven, plus 45 cents per mile. I pay for no gas, insurance, repairs, or anything else.

Because customers are charged at an hourly rate, this scheme sunders the economic logic normally associated with automobile usage, in which car owners pay massive up-front insurance, financing, and registration costs, and are therefore encouraged to get their money's worth by driving as much as possible. People using the program will drive only when they really need to drive, and, one can hope, ever more people will decide having a car when they need it is quite good enough, and will choose not to buy cars, or to give up the costly, space-eating ones they already own.

To start, three cars will be parked at each of five locations: the North Beach Garage, the Fifth and Mission Garage, the Performing Arts Garage at Grove and Gough, the Golden Gateway garage at Embarcadero and Market, and on Treasure Island. Eventually, sponsors plan to put 675 shared cars on the road, with the hope of freeing parking spaces, and reducing the number of cars on the road. Pedestrian deaths could decline. Air pollution could thin. And it could become easier to get around a less congested San Francisco, whether or not you drive a car.

While car-sharing is relatively new to the U.S. -- Portland and Boston also have pilot programs -- it's old hat in Europe, where citizens have long known how to have their cake and eat it too.

In Germany and Switzerland, car-sharing has been popular since the 1980s, with Mobility CarSharing Switzerland serving 40,000 customers and operating 1,300 vehicles. In Switzerland -- which has a population approximately the same as the San Francisco Bay Area, as City CarShare Executive Director Elizabeth Sullivan is fond of pointing out -- residents can use transit passes that allow them to ride the Swiss railroad and rent a shared vehicle.

A modest car-sharing program was attempted, and aborted, in San Francisco during the mid-1980s. But Sullivan says prospects are better this time. She notes that unlike the previous effort, her program will be well-funded from the start.

City CarShare joins a spate of similar efforts around the bay. In Berkeley, a private developer is providing tenants with a fleet of shared cars, so he can build fewer parking spaces at a 91-unit downtown building. In Fremont, the Hertz Corp. is offering commuters part-time use of a special vehicle pool. The approach is taking root around the country as well. A Portland car-sharing program has 18 cars on the road. In Seattle, 458 residents share 12 green Honda Civics.

But for San Francisco City CarShare to meet its stated goals of alleviating the city's congestion and parking crises -- and for it to help me attain my goal of driving without guilt -- it's going to have to move well beyond this initial, pilot phase. As it stands, in addition to its federal grant, the group has raised $150,000 from developers, who see the program as a way to build fewer parking spaces at apartment buildings.

If the fantasy of car-reduction is to be fulfilled, the waiting list for the CarShare program is going to have to grow to the many thousands; that waiting list would allow the nonprofit to finance the purchase of hundreds more cars, each of which could serve, on average, 10 separate citizens. Many of the new users would have to be corporate clients wishing to rent the vehicles during working hours, so the cars -- and their fee meters -- could be kept running both day and night. Otherwise City CarShare won't pencil out as a business, and it will close.

The group will also have to get further commitments for free or subsidized parking spaces from lots around the city. Already City CarShare is contacting hospitals, grocery stores, private parking lots -- anyone with some space -- with the goal of making it easy to pick up a shared car anywhere people live, shop, or work.

If City CarShare surmounts the odds and does succeed, this would be all for the good -- for the wonderful, really. As it is, the sidewalk in front of my house is packed with illegally parked cars every night. Traffic-stalled motorists are becoming surlier and more dangerous by the day. A housing shortage is purging the city. And the fights and hate and suffering associated with our commercial space crisis have riven our town.

If City CarShare reaches its initial goal of putting 675 shared Beetles on the road, it will be able to squeeze 6,750 drivers into 675 parking spaces -- freeing up the other 6,075.

Double or quadruple that -- say to the point where couples considering a second car choose CarShare instead -- and it might become slightly easier to find a parking space in your neighborhood weeknights. Quadruple that, to, say, 10,000 metal-flake Beetles, and parking could become so plentiful that neighborhood associations stop opposing new apartment buildings.

Plus, heck, a trip to Burlingame by CarShare would cost less than a taxi ride to Union Square.

So I hope this program works out well for City CarShare. And, of course, for me.

I called Elizabeth Sullivan late last week and wheedled a ride in one of her group's demonstration Beetles of a chartreuse shade. If this stubby, Valley Girl number was no Galaxie 500 Custom, I imagined its German suspension might be good enough to grab some G-force on a curve or two. Sullivan obliged and we took off from the SF Weekly Enterprises building toward an I-80 on-ramp to see what this baby could do. For starters, I was surprised by the amount of head and leg room in the Beetle. Also, it had the kind of pleasantly heavy, clunky doors that are becoming more popular on newer, side-impact-ready vehicles. Although the 2.0-liter, overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine won't be winning any rallies soon, it had enough punch to give Sullivan and me the sense we could tear up Tunitas Creek Road if the need arose. Our test car really got moving only when the tachometer needle climbed to about 3,500 rpm, and performance from 30 mph to 55 mph was fairly strong, with the engine spinning quietly at medium speeds.

I figured I'd take the 15 mph off-ramp onto Treasure Island to test the Beetle's four-wheel independent suspension system. I took it at 30, and my Beetle and I hugged the pavement smoothly, as if we were on a velodrome. I straightened it out, swung left, cruised down to the entrance to the old Treasure Island Naval Base, and stopped for a look out across the bay. The skyscrapers of midtown glinted in the sun. Four seals bobbed near the artificial shoreline. The Beetle, which I knew I would soon be driving whenever the notion struck me, glowed with sparkly, green, almost unreal light. My heart fluttered.

I was in love. Again.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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