Border effects – Why my neighborhood is rich in car2go

A car2go waits expectantly for its next user at the Minneapolis - St. Paul border (the car is in Minneapolis, the Weyerhaeuser warehouse at the end of the block is in St. Paul)
A car2go waits expectantly for its next user at the Minneapolis - St. Paul border (the car is in Minneapolis, the Weyerhaeuser warehouse at the end of the block is in St. Paul)
A car2go waits expectantly for its next user at the Minneapolis – St. Paul border (the car is in Minneapolis, the Weyerhaeuser warehouse at the end of the block is in St. Paul)

In economics, there are many border effects associated with tax and regulatory policies. People shop in X (Oregon) and live in Y (Washington) to avoid sales or income taxes. But sometimes these are just small effects.

In my neighborhood, abutting the City of St. Paul, we are rich in Car2go vehicles, because car2Go operates in Minneapolis and not St. Paul. Thus to legally park and check out of your car, you must leave it on a Minneapolis city street. Residents just across the City Line can still sign up for Car2Go, and have, they just park a block or two away in Minneapolis, giving us the benefits of their membership – more cars within walking distance, and the curse of additional parked cars in our fair city.

Car 2 Go map, showing preponderance of cars near the city line.
Car 2 Go map, showing preponderance of cars near the city line.

Like I said, it’s not a big deal, but it is noticeable and interesting, and probably temporary as CAR2GO spreads virally across the border.

Minneapolis man survives – and thrives – without a car | Star Tribune

Eric Roper at the Star Tribune writes an autobiographical lifestyle piece: Minneapolis man survives – and thrives – without a car. I am quoted:

Car2Go via StarTribune article
Car2Go via StarTribune article

“The transit system works reasonably well if you’re going to go downtown, or to one of the downtowns,” said Prof. David Levinson, a transportation expert at the University of Minnesota. “There’s relatively fewer cross-connections. So if you’re not going to downtown, but you want to go from Point A to Point B, Car2Go might very well be faster.”

Not for everyone

Going carless isn’t for everyone, of course. I happen to live along a transit corridor and not far from where I work. Many people in the Twin Cities have long commutes to and from the suburbs and rely on their cars to get their children to the soccer game and the orthodontist.

“Kids plus no car seems like a Triple Lindy level of difficulty,” one Twitter follower told me when I asked about managing without a car.

Not everyone has the mobility to ride a bike, and the bus system isn’t convenient if you work in a location that’s off the beaten track.

“A lot of it just depends on how you arrange your life,” said Levinson, whose five-member family owns one car. “In the city it is very different than in the suburbs because there’s a lot more choices in the city itself. I think that it [being without a car] is certainly more possible now because of Car2Go than it was previously. Places that were accessible by transit, but inconveniently, are now less inconvenient.”

But for some urban families, the growing number of transportation options may mean the ability to get rid of a car — or even two.

They just might find — as I did — the many intangible benefits to becoming car-free.

Taxonomy of Shared Vehicle New Mobility Options


I posted my taxonomy of modes recently. Dave Brook at Carsharing.US has also put up a : Taxonomy of Shared Vehicle New Mobility Options, which stratifies by Scheduled and Spontaneous Trips, Company vs. Privately Owned, and Car Rental, Car Share, and Mobility on Demand.

Car Sharing Trends

Source: Innovative Mobility Carsharing Outlook: Carsharing Market Overview, Analysis, and Trends - Summer 2013
Source: Innovative Mobility Carsharing Outlook: Carsharing Market Overview, Analysis, and Trends – Summer 2013

Susan Shaheen et al. at UC Berkeley have some nice trends on Carsharing in the US in their report Innovative Mobility Carsharing Outlook: Carsharing Market Overview, Analysis, and Trends – Summer 2013. I don’t know where market saturation is, but we are not there yet.

Car2Go – A Review (updated)

I am a skeptic of carsharing. I have used Zipcar in the past, but stopped due its inconvenience and cost.

The Car2Go vehicle used for this review
The Car2Go vehicle used for this review

Minneapolis has a new system that has gotten good reviews, so upon the urging of some fellow transportationists, I used Car2Go today to go to a meeting at MetroTransit (hoping to maximize irony).

I reserved a car 2 blocks away from my house using the website (I could have used the app). I got to the car in my appointed window, it was where it was supposed to be. I tapped in (this took a few seconds to find the place to tap in, which is on the front window … this was not immediately obvious due to frost and it being the first time). The car unlocked for me after a few seconds. I got in the car. I could not see out of the car due to frost. Fortunately there was an ice scraper in the back. So I paid $0.38 for a minute of ice scraping. The car was so small the scraping was fast though. Put the key in the ignition and started it.

Update: There is a short grace period before billing begins, so I might not actually have been charged for the privilege of ice scraping.

Some things you notice.

This is a small car, it has a tight turning radius. I could turn the car around on the street so it would point in the right direction without having to do any reverse maneuvers or touching the curb.

This is a new car, so the brake pedal is stiff. So I still need to calibrate force on the brake pedal (and the gas) to get a non-jerky amount of deceleration or acceleration.

The previous driver was short.

The GPS in the car tells me where I am, though I did not test directions.

The user interface is straight-forward, however checking out is  not as simple as it seems.

The car gives you the feel of the road. (When I told Honda Dealer once that a test ride was bumpy , they said Honda designs their cars that way because of Honda’s “racing heritage”, so I will chalk it up to Smart’s racing heritage.) On Franklin Avenue SE, this is not a good thing.

Update: Car2Go says there is a “manual” mode for the transmission which would produce a less jerky ride, so that it is an automatic manual mode. I will have to try this to see how it works. I was not aware of it the first time.

At the end of the trip, I found an on-street parking location, turned off the ignition, checked out, followed the procedure I thought, and left the car there.

Two hours after I thought my trip ended, I got a text message. (They did send it shortly after my trip, but I am not a text message person, and it didn’t vibrate my phone.)

“Your trip could not be ended. Please return to the vehicle and swipe your card against the card reader to complete the trip.”

Sadly I did not get this until I am very far from the car. I hope they figure it out, clearly they did know that I was not in the car and had ended my trip, otherwise they would not have sent the message, so it seems redundant to tell me that my trip could not be ended if they know it ended. If they bill me for this, it is going to be a very bad review. Their tagline “Simply park and we will take care of the rest” is a bit misleading.


So once I got the message, I called their number from the website, and they shut it down remotely. The text message did not give me this number, and they have not replied to my text reply. Via the phone representative, they shut down the rental (2.5 hours after the trip ended), and wound the clock back 20 minutes, which is the maximum they can do, so they say, with a request to the local office to credit more time. They are supposed to follow-up with me. As of two hours later, this has not happened.

The bill from today's 20 minute trip
The bill from today’s 20 minute trip

The bill, as it stands, is somewhat higher than a comparable transit trip.

Note to Car2Go. I will amend this if it is deducted from bill at some later time.

After tweeting to @car2goMPLS, they called me and fixed the bill and were quite helpful. Unfortunately the message did not get passed down from HQ to the local office as had been suggested. So all is well that ends well, but if were not a Twitterer, I probably would be less happy right now.

Fleet Turnover

The private automobile fleet in the US turns over very slowly. This is because as capital, it is not used most of the time, and thus wears out slowly. If instead of 250 million vehicles operating 1 hour a day, suppose we had 125 million vehicles operating 2 hours per day, or 62.5 million vehicles operating 4 hours per day. Our vehicles would be replaced 4 times as often (assuming they wear out with usage), and the average age of vehicles on the road would be under 3 years instead of 11.4 years. I have had 7 (different generations of) cell phones in the past 11.4 years.

We (as both individuals and society) want a newer fleet because newer cars:

  • are more fuel efficient,
  • pollute less (both because they use less energy and because they have better pollution control),
  • are safer,
  • have better user interfaces (we hope) and are more in-sync with changes in information technologies.

We (as a society) want fewer cars because that:

  • requires less parking, and
  • makes driving less likely.

This efficient use of capital (keeping vehicles in motion 24/7) is a hallmark of large, expensive fleets like shipping, airlines, railroads, and to a lesser extent trucks.

Instead of paying a fixed cost of ownership once (independent of use), and a variable cost that includes only fuel and time, the cost of car usage would include paying for the fixed cost of ownership on a per trip basis. This would significantly raise the out-of-pocket cost of driving, and discourage it, but also make driving better. But it might also lower the total cost of transportation, since individuals would no longer have so much capital tied up in vehicles, and would drive more efficient cars, less often. This is independent of, and multiplicative with, any reductions in vehicle use that could arise with increased ride-sharing enabled by logging your planned trips in advance.

We can achieve this with Cloud Commuting, Car sharing where the vehicle comes to you. But even before the halcyon days of driverless cars lift up humanity from the need to be ever alert while traveling, ubiquitous car sharing where the vehicles are omnipresent instead of rare would make this much more feasible even in medium density suburbs.

Car sharing has strong network effects. I am more likely to use car sharing if my neighbors use it, since that makes it more likely there will be a car in front of my house, my workplace, my shop, or wherever, when I want it. A reduction in vehicle access time from 10 minutes to 5 minutes, or 5 minutes to 2 minutes is very significant, especially when most trips are only 20 minutes long. As with any social network, it is not clear in advance which if any will take off. As with many networks, there needs to be a large up-front capital investment. But unlike transit systems, car-sharing is dealing mostly with mobile capital. If the program doesn’t work in place A, cars can be redeployed to place B, or at worst, sold in a used car lot.

So the economics of sharing makes sense, but the sociology of sharing is still unclear. People will share hotel rooms, or bikes, or library books, but not many other goods (or historically cars). How do cars get transformed from an owned good to a rented service? In part this is generational. If you have never owned a car, new habits can be formed. But that type of change is very slow. Early adopters and the carless may be quick to join. Some use their cars often enough, in places remote enough, or customize their cars sufficiently that carsharing will not be advantageous. Where is the threshold? I am on record as a skeptic (even if it is a good idea). The Car2Go model (of which I am a member, but which I have yet to use), which recently invaded Minneapolis, where the cars can be left in on-street parking rather than returned to the base seems progress, maybe they will put in enough capital so there is a car waiting for me on every block. But there are a lot of blocks in Minneapolis (1100 miles, I estimate some 11000 block faces), so moving from 212 cars to some 10000 (as a rough approximation of where it needs to be so I don’t have to walk more than a block to find one) is a 50-fold expansion. While reviews are favorable, finding one of 212 cars on 1100 miles of street is not going to be a dominant mode. (or roughly 4 per square mile in the city, meaning roughly a 1/4 – 1/2 mile walk to get one, which of course varies depending on where in the city you are).

The required 50-fold upscaling to make carsharing approximately block-level is non-trivial (10000 cars at ~ $10000 each is $100,000,000 (still well less than a Vikings Stadium, or on the order of a single Streetcar line!)). But 10000 cars is less than several hundred thousand registered in Minneapolis, and could replace many of them.

Cloud Commuting

The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.
The End of Traffic and the Future of Access: A Roadmap to the New Transport Landscape. By David M. Levinson and Kevin J. Krizek.

Once upon a time, people kept their life savings on their person or at their homes, stored in physical material like gold and jewelry and property. Then money was invented as a medium of exchange, and people stored a surrogate of their wealth. Then banking was invented, and people centralized their holdings in a bank, and were paid interest for the privilege. Why were they paid? Because the banks could reuse their money by lending it out, at an even greater rate of interest. Money is fungible. I do not lose anything by storing it at the bank (and allowing them to lend it) except the privacy of keeping secret how much money I have, and risk that the bank will be unable to pay me back. The first is resolved through regulations, and the use of multiple banks, the latter by insurance. In any case, it is much safer than storing the money in a mattress at home.

Once upon a time, people kept their life’s information on their person or on computers at their home or work, stored in physical material like floppy disk drives, hard disk drives, solid state drives, CDs, DVDs, and USB chips. Then the internet was invented, and centralized servers were made inexpensively and redundantly, and people could store their information in the “cloud”. In many cases the cloud is free, or charges only a small fee. In exchange, the recipients agree to allow their personal information to be used to generate customized advertising targeted at them personally. But imagine their were a way for the cloud to earn interest on information much the same way banks earn interest on money, by synthesizing it and “lending it out”. Since information is not rivalrous, this may prove viable with sufficient artificial intelligence aimed at developing ontologies and computer intelligence. The risk is the loss of privacy. Alternatively the customer pays the cloud for storage and computation, retaining privacy, in exchange being relieved of duties of backup, which when neglected lead to all too much data loss.

Once upon a time people kept their personal transportation near their person, parking cars and bikes at their homes, workplaces, or other destinations. This was the only way to guarantee point to point transportation in a timely way where densities were low, incomes high, and taxis scarce. Then “cloud commuting” was invented, cars from a giant pool operated by organizations in the cloud would dispatch a vehicle that drives to the customer on demand and in short order, and then deliver the customer to the destination. The vehicle would have the customers preferences pre-loaded (seat position, computing ability, audio environment). The customer benefits of course by not tying up capital in vehicles, nor having to worry about maintaining or fueling vehicles. The fleet is used more efficiently, each vehicle would operate 2 times or 3 times or more miles per year than current vehicles, so the fleet would turnover faster and be more modern. Fewer vehicles overall would be needed. It is likely customers would need to pay for this service (either as a subscription or a per-use basis), there is no obvious analogue to financial interest payments (and while advertising might offset some costs, surely it would not cover them). However stores might subsidize transportation, as might employers, as benefits for the customers or staff.

The tension between centralization and decentralization has been continuous through the history of technology, each has its advantages and disadvantages (and strangely, each also has religious zealots convinced there is one true way). This is ultimately a question of costs and benefits, and who bears the costs and benefits.

I am skeptical that cloud commuting can be made to work quite yet, there are still a few more technologies to perfect. Having tested Zipcar, their system lacks in several ways, much the ways the first banks failed frequently. Zipcars are still not local enough, they charge too much for lateness, the technology is still imperfect. But imagine we have cars that drive themselves. (and to PRT-advocates, these will be cars driving on streets, there are not enough resources to build a new infrastructure network for specialized vehicles). Smart cars solve the localness problem, since the cars come to you. In a way it also solves the lateness problem, because there is no need to reserve a specific car for a specific window, any unused fleet car can be dispatched. There would need to load balancing features, and maybe coordinated carpooling at peak times. (It also saves on parking, especially parking in high value areas).
Related links:

* Technological change, part 2: Autonomous vehicles
* The Future of Cars