Flexcar Getting Stiffed?

Updated May 11: PDOT has released their evaluation report (PDF, 72K) of Flexcar’s “Pilot” use of on-street parking.

We’ve had a number of posts here about Flexcar, the carsharing program that has been operating here in Portland for several years (disclaimer, I’m a member, and a happy one).

Until now, Flexcar has enjoyed free use of on-street parking spaces under what PDOT considered a pilot program (not quite free – Flexcar pays the administrative costs of signage, etc. for the spaces).

PDOT has been trying to figure out what to do about this on a permanent basis. They took a run at a policy last year, but decided to leave the ‘pilot’ in place for another year. The imminent entry of Zipcar (another carsharing company) into the Portland market has apparently motivated PDOT to get going again. PDOT is now seeking feedback on a policy draft. There are several key features to this draft that I’m having trouble with:

  • Only allows two carsharing companies to have access to on-street spaces
  • Caps companies at 50 spaces each in metered zones (unmetered spaces are not capped)
  • Seeks full recovery of foregone meter revenue at spaces in metered zones

First, I don’t know why we would limit this to two companies. I think we need the opportunity for the innovation that other companies might offer. For example, I know a company that is working on the idea of a sharing program based on neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs). I would hate to think this innovation was locked out because we already had two companies running programs with more traditional vehicles.

Capping spaces in metered zones is self-defeating. These are the zones that have the most intensity of activity and therefore the most opportunity for carsharing. And they are the zones that can benefit most. One study shows that a carsharing vehicle avoids many (up to 15) individually owned vehicles. Also, we are likely to see more metered zones in Portland, as Commissioner Adams pushes neighborhood business districts to look at metering. If we ever get consensus on a parking plan in NW Portland, I think Flexcar would instantly be over its limit.

And full cost recovery ignores the collective benefits of these programs. Sure, they’re private for-profit companies. But carsharing members are less likely to own (and drive) private autos and generally make more use of transit. And as I said before, in areas of constrained parking supply like NW Portland, they help reduce demand for on-street spaces.

Of course, Flexcar is not lying down. Their member newsletter suggests a number of talking points to use with the City:

  1. Flexcar is pleased with the City’s favorable evaluation of the reserved, on-street parking program for shared cars and other transit options.
  2. However, there are problems with the proposed new parking fees and with putting a cap on the number of metered spaces that may be used for transit options.
  3. The average cost for Flexcars existing spaces would be about $65 per month in the first year and $130 per month in the second year.
  4. What this means for Flexcar members:
    1. Loss of convenience. Higher on-street parking costs for Flexcar will result in fewer vehicles being placed in high-demand locations. There would also likely be a shift away from on-street spaces to parking garages, where they are available.
    2. Higher costs for car-sharers. Flexcar members could face an hourly surcharge to use cars located at on-street parking spots, to cover the cost of the new fees. If cars are moved to parking garages, this new expense would also raise car-sharers rates.

I understand PDOT’s dilemma. They don’t want multiple companies oversupplying the market to the point that they chew up too many spaces and don’t get enough use. They also have legitimate concerns about losing meter revenue, one of PDOT’s few sources of operating revenue.

But I have a better idea for a policy to balance the benefits and costs. First eliminate the caps and change the pricing structure to reward efficiency. Pick an optimum utilization target (12 hours per day?) and for cars in spaces that hit the target, keep cost recovery at the administrative recovery level. For vehicles with less utilization, have a sliding scale of cost recovery, with minimally utilized vehicles paying 100% meter revenue recovery.

This encourages the companies to serve their customers efficiently, and punishes over-supply, while still allowing underwriting the public benefits where they are delivered well.

Who has other ideas?

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