Carless in Cleveland

If you drive one of your cars less than 8,000 miles a year and live between West 117th Street and Shaker Square, Ryan Mckenzie says his upstart vehicle-sharing concept makes sense for you.  But will car-loving Clevelanders get with the program?

No car payment. No insurance bills. No filling up at the gas station.

These are the reasons Ryan McKenzie thinks Cleveland will buy into his idea. Since February, the Ohio City resident and EcoCity Cleveland transportation manager has been testing a car-sharing concept in Oberlin that he hopes to bring downtown this spring.

To be successful, he’ll have to snap many city and inner-ring neighborhood residents out of their
one-car-for-each-adult way of thinking. It may seem like a radical concept for Clevelanders, but other cities have been benefiting from such programs for years.

“Car sharing is now in 18 metro areas,” McKenzie offers, explaining that the idea migrated to the United States from Europe 25 years ago. “Name a city that is known for having a good quality of urban living and they probably already have it: Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis —  even Detroit has something.”

McKenzie has worked on many public transportation projects throughout his career, but the idea of a program under his control that could immediately benefit Cleveland’s neighborhoods is what he says pushed him to found his upstart car-sharing business, City Wheels. By the end of 2006, he hopes to have a fleet of 16 cars. He’ll need a total of 25 cars and up to three years to break even. But he says he expects a segment of Clevelanders will get behind the idea as they realize it’s a financial issue as much as an environmental one.

Admittedly, it’s a service for people who don't drive (or don’t need to drive) every day.  McKenzie says the break-even point seems to be around 8,000 miles a year. If you’re driving more than that, the program isn’t for you.
If you’re driving less, it’s probably more cost-effective for you to slap a “For Sale” sign on your car.

"The whole reason car sharing is cheaper is you’re spreading out the fixed costs of ownership and insurance and maintenance over a larger number of people,” McKenzie explains. “The typical car in an urban setting gets driven maybe an hour-and-a-half per day, on average. … A typical car is sitting idle in excess of 21 hours a day, taking up space, costing money for parking and insurance payments and not providing a lot of service.”

Of course, you’re wondering by now exactly how McKenzie’s car-sharing program works. After joining City Wheels for a $99 flat fee, you book time via the its Web site for $8.50 an hour (volume rates scale down to $7.25 per hour).  From there, you go to the vehicle, located a short walk from your front door (“The car is already living in your neighborhood,” as McKenzie puts it), and swipe your membership card to unlock the door. The key is already inside.  When you’re done, you return the car to its parking space.

“We’re going to be putting [the cars] out in a network that is ideally no longer than a 10-minute walk away from our customer,” McKenzie says. “In a place like downtown, there should be eventually several dozen cars downtown located a five-minute walk from each other — different kinds of vehicles.”

So, if you want to take a two-hour spin in a two-seater sports car, you can do that without investing big-time cash in a car you rarely drive. As McKenzie says, “at the end of the day, you just give it back to us and we take care of it and you don’t have to worry about the fact that there's no backseat and not enough trunk room to be practical.”

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