The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Car Share Programs hit the Twin Cities; maybe Mac

By Ari Ofsevit

It’s -10 degrees outside, the next bus doesn’t come for 25 minutes, and you really don’t want to walk two miles on an icy sidewalk. You’d love a car to ply the Minnesota winter, but you can’t afford the cost of a vehicle, plus insurance, gas and maintenance on top of tuition, room and board.

While Macalester students are, for now, out of luck, two services in the Twin Cities are providing cars by the hour — a cheaper alternative for people who can’t afford a car. And within a year, perhaps, Macalester may soon be home to a shared Toyota Prius, said Tom Welna ’86, the director of the campus High Winds office.

The concept, known as car sharing, is a relatively new phenomenon in the country, especially in the Twin Cities. Many Mac students from East and West Coast cities may be familiar with shared vehicles, as the two industry giants, Zipcar and Flexcar, have tens of thousands of members in several cities. In addition, several nonprofit organizations provide car sharing, including Hourcar, part of the Neighborhood Energy Consortium, in the Twin Cities.

The first car sharing in the Twin Cities began on June 20 when Hourcar started with six Toyota Prius hybrid-electric vehicles based in downtown Saint Paul and Loring Park and Uptown in Minneapolis. They have since expanded to a fleet of 12 and added more locations, said Mary Morse ’82, executive director of the Neighborhood Energy Consortium, a 21-year-old organization based in Saint Paul. Hourcar accounts for about one-fourth of the current staffing at the Consortium, and has been in development since 2002.

With nearly 200 members, Hourcar is the larger of the providers in the area, and hopes to reach 400 members soon, a level which would likely mean profitability, an overall goal of the program. Expansion is currently focused on adding more members before adding many new cars.

By offering shared cars, Hourcar can “make it possible to live car free” in the Twin Cities, Morse said, adding that by taking cars off the road, “car sharing is good for air quality and fuel conservation.” She estimates that the market in the Twin Cities could easily “have 100 cars serving 3,500 to 4,500 people or more” within a few years.

The new player on the Twin Cities car sharing scene is Zipcar, a national, for-profit company with more than 50,000 members, 1,000 cars in ten states and 29 cities, the vast majority in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, with other locations based at colleges and universities. The service launched earlier this month with six cars in three locations at the University of Minnesota, and future expansion in the Twin Cities will be based on the success of those programs.

Zipcar has partnered with the University of Minnesota, providing “back-end support” including vehicles, technology and billing, said Christine Laurence, a manager of business development for Zipcar. In return for this support, the U guarantees a certain amount of revenue. Students, faculty and staff at the U pay a $30 annual fee (instead of $50) and have a one-time $25 application fee waived.

“Zipcar came to the Twin Cities because of the University, which manages the program,” Laurence said, allowing the company to expand to a new market without the overhead of a new office and staff. The service currently has six cars and about 50 users, and “it is going great; we are getting great signups,” Laurence said.

Zipcar university program started at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and includes mostly larger schools or schools in neighborhoods already served by Zipcar, with the exception of Wellesley College, which has two cars based at a campus not much larger than Macalester.

The company is profitable in Boston and moving toward profitability in other cities it serves, while expanding to new markets (a Zipcar membership can be used in any city). The goal of the company is to give people “the freedom to give up a personal car and to make car sharing as easy as going to the ATM,” Laurence said.

While no rivalry between the two companies has yet formed in the Twin Cities, each touts its own service. Laurence says that “Zipcar provides better, more secure technology and a wider range of cars” than its competitors. Morse says that while it is great to see more people sharing cars, Hourcar is “not here to make a profit off the students but to provide a service for the community.”

Currently, the shared cars based nearest to Macalester are located several miles away, either at the Saint Paul campus of the U or downtown Saint Paul. The High Winds office, however, has drafted a plan to bring Hourcar to campus. Tom Welna, the director of High Winds, first began investigating shared cars in September and brought a draft proposal to provide for the capital costs of a car and parking space before the High Winds board in December.

“There’s going to be a car-sharing program here eventually,” Welna said, “[providing capital costs] will move us up from 40th to 50th on the list” of areas to be served by Hourcar. Welna hopes to have a firm proposal for the April meeting of High Winds, and the campus could theoretically have a shared car by next fall.

Car sharing has been particularly successful on and near college campuses, and this neighborhood is a good place for a program, Welna said. He has talked to both Hourcar and Zipcar, and is interested in working with the Neighborhood Energy Consortium, as it is a homegrown company and would keep the money in Saint Paul. The cost to the college would be between $20,000 and $30,000 over two years.

Welna has talked to Patagonia about using a spot in their lot, for “self-advertising on Grand,” he said. After two years, Welna hopes that the program would be self-sufficient and possibly create enough demand, both from the college and community, for further vehicles. Including faculty, staff and students over 21 at the college, Welna estimates that there are 1,300 potential Hourcar users, plus many more in the surrounding community.

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