Car-sharing in Portland



Life After Oil
-Jeremiah Creedon

Bill Ford Has a Better Idea
-Martin Wright

The Rail Revival
-Jay Walljasper

Car-Sharing in Portland
-Steve Gutmann

Motorless in Montreal
-Nick Peck

Discuss Life After Oil in Café Utne. Click here: café

Several years ago, Amanda and I taught in Rome. We discovered the joys of urban living by making our way around by bike, bus, subway, and train. We met the local shopkeepers, took long walks on cobblestone streets, listened to street musicians, and drank coffee in the sunshine at outdoor cafés.

When we returned home to Portland, Oregon, we decided to live in the same car-free way, moving to a dense, vibrant neighborhood with nearby services, and considering only jobs within a reasonable (bikeable, that is) commute. But Portland isn’t Rome. There’s plenty of coffee but also lots of rain. It also isn’t particularly easy to navigate by bus. We quickly found that there were times–about once every couple of weeks–when we really wished we had a car. Our decision to live car-free began to feel less like a principled choice and more like a pointless sacrifice, especially when we found ourselves caught in Portland’s soaking drizzle. It was ecologically responsible but psychologically unsustainable. Eventually we started looking for a car.

But car sharing saved the day. Modeled after similar programs in Europe, CarSharing Portland (CSP) is basically a membership-based hourly car rental service. Here’s how it works: After collecting a $25 application fee, CSP checks applicants’ driving records and credit histories. If everything checks out, new members then pay a $10 per month fee and receive a key that fits every car in the fleet.

CSP currently has 18 vehicles–mostly Dodge Neons, and one Toyota pickup. Most are practically new. Each car is parked in a designated spot downtown or throughout Portland’s close-in, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Two hundred eighty-two members share these 18 vehicles, and the company adds new cars as new members join, so there are typically 15 to 18 members per car.

When a member wants to use a car, she calls a touch-tone registration system and reserves the closest available vehicle. With a little advance planning, availability is hardly ever a problem, but getting a car on short notice sometimes requires a bike ride if the closest cars are already in use.

CSP keeps the vehicles clean and well maintained, and there’s a CSP gas card in each glove compartment for filling the tank. Members record the mileage when they begin a trip and again when they return the car to its spot. CSP’s computer multiplies the hours used by $1.50 and the mileage by 40 cents, and bills the user’s credit card. Gas, maintenance, repairs, and insurance are all included.

If a member returns a car late and leaves someone stranded, the stranded member is entitled to either a CSP credit or a cab–at the tardy person’s expense. This rarely happens.

CSP is designed for short-term use, and to keep one member from tieing up a car for long periods, CSP has arranged for members to get reduced rates for full-day or weekend rentals with a rental car firm.

We’ve been members now for two years. In a typical month, the two of us drive a total of about 100 miles and our combined transportation bill is about $60. (By way of comparison, the American Automobile Association says the average cost of owning and operating a modest, relatively new sedan is $7,363 a year: $614 a month, or $20 a day.)

Although most current CSP members are individuals and families, CSP founder Dave Brook has begun to approach businesses, too. Apparently, many people drive to work not because they dislike mass transit, but because they need a car during the day for a doctor appointment, a business meeting, or a lunch date. Brook thinks that if more employees have access to a car at work they might find other ways to commute.

Car sharing is already quite popular in Europe, and is now on the rise in North America. Canada has groups in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City. Flexcar now operates in Seattle, ZipCar in the Boston area, and City CarShare in San Francisco. Car sharing projects are also being planned in cities ranging from Cleveland to Boulder to Washington, D.C.

Steve Gutmann volunteers on the board of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance. From Orion Afield (Autumn 2000). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues of Orion Afield, plus 4 issues of Orion magazine, and membership in the Orion Society), from 195 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230; 888/999-6568;

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.