Photo by atxryan on Flickr.

Car2go, a subsidiary of Daimler, is looking to bring its “point to point” car sharing model to DC, with about 300 cars possibly as soon as this fall.

With a car sharing service such as Zipcar, you reserve a car that lives at a certain spot, use it for a while, then return it. This is very useful to let car-free residents run errands that require cargo capacity, or take trips out of town. But each Zipcar needs a dedicated parking space. When a car is out, nobody else can use that space, and that car might spend some time sitting parked when nobody else can use it, either.

Car2go’s model doesn’t have designated spaces. Instead, cars are just parked at various places on the street and in garages. If you want a car, you use the web, a mobile app, or call into a call center to find out where nearby cars happen to be parked. Then, you go to one, unlock it with a code, and drive it.

When you’re done, you just park it anywhere on the street, even in a wholly different neighborhood than where you picked it up. Car2go is working with DC to allow cars to park in RPP zones across the city, on the logic that the cars will serve those residents in RPP zones who don’t have their own cars. They will also work out deals with garages in downtown areas.

They already run service in Austin, Vancouver, and in the German cities of Hamburg and Ulm. San Diego is starting up soon with an all-electric vehicle fleet. (DC’s wouldn’t be electric at first, since we don’t yet have the infrastructure for charging the vehicles.)

In Austin, the service costs 35¢ per minute for short trips, plus tax. Once you hit $12.99 in an hour (which takes 38 minutes), then it’s a flat $12.99 an hour, and a maximum of $65.99 per day. There are also charges for driving more than 150 miles.

Like with other car sharing services, car2go pays for gas, insurance, maintenance, and all parking. There’s only a $35 one-time fee to join, with no annual fees. They anticipate using the same pricing in DC as in Austin.

Zipcar, by contrast, costs $25 to join (less) but $60 a year (much more). Hourly rates start at $7.75 (less) but require 1-hour minimums, and the daily maximum is a bit more.

In many ways, car2go compared to single-passenger vehicles is analogous to Capital Bikeshare versus owning your own bike. Single-passenger biking requires storing the bike at home, and parking it at the destination. If you bicycle one way, you have to then ride the other way (or leave the bike at work, or take it on Metro or a bus). The same goes for driving.

With car2go’s model, as with Capital Bikeshare, people can use cars for one-way trips and use transit, bicycling, walking or something else for other legs of the trip. Like Capital Bikeshare, people who own cars might even find it useful to take car2go, such as if they’re out somewhere and want to drive back, or need to get somewhere fast and can’t find a cab but would rather not park at the destination all day and can ride transit back.

However, also like Capital Bikeshare, I wonder about cars ending up congregated in certain areas and not available in others. Car2go business development manager Adam Johnson said that they don’t anticipate this being a big problem, however, and it hasn’t in their other cities. I’m still skeptical, though.

Johnson said cars “tend to gravitate” toward areas where many people use them. Will that mean cars will be difficult to find in other areas? They clearly realize the political importance of serving all parts of the city, and Johnson said they will definitely have cars east of the river, for instance. In fact, he said, car2go’s service “generates a lot more accessibility” for people in those areas, where there are few taxis.

But what if someone parks a vehicle in a low density area where there are few members and so the car won’t get taken the other way? Or what about all cars flowing toward downtown in the morning and away at night? Johnson said they can do some redistributing, but generally don’t have to. He added, “The onus is on us to make sure we have members everywhere.”

The spur-of-the-moment nature of car2go might encourage many people to use it who might not use something like Zipcar. Zipcar is great, but there are some psychological barriers. You have to reserve more than enough time to get the car back on time, since someone might be using it after you and you’ll get hit with a penalty if you’re not back.

When I’ve used Zipcar, that’s sometimes created some stress, where I know I have to leave at a certain time and worry about traffic. It’s a feeling somewhat like having to go catch a plane, and it can be unpleasant. With car2go, that’s not a concern. Car2go does allow making reservations, though they say most people don’t actually end up making them.

What effect would car2go have on traffic? It’s great that Capital Bikeshare is lowering the barrier to biking, because it’s good for the city to have more people biking. Biking takes up very little road space compared to driving, and the more people ride, the safer it is for everyone.

We don’t want to encourage more car trips. Drivers don’t want them because the more people drive, the worse the traffic. Non-drivers don’t want them because more driving hurts air quality and often makes roads less safe.

Even though it’s a service about providing cars, Zipcar actually reduces overall driving. When they opened in Baltimore, the members who joined started walking, biking, and riding transit more. 38% reported taking more than 5 car trips in the previous month, but then only 12% did in the last month, according to a Zipcar survey.

Johnson says car2go hasn’t yet been able to collect similar statistics on the effect of their service on driving, but that they believe they, too, lead to reduced car usage and more transit, biking, and walking.

Car2go also has an API for people to be able to integrate it into other web, mobile and other apps. That’s important because we’re going to see more and more multimodal trip planners, information screens, and other services in the future, showing people all of their travel options from buses to bikes to cars.

More travel options allows us to make more efficient use of our road network and scarce land. Like Zipcar, car2go has the potential to allow far more people to use each car, reducing unsightly or expensive parking space and saving families a lot of money in loans and maintenance.

When people can choose at a moment’s notice between a bus, Metro, walking, their own bike, a Capital Bikeshare bike, a Zipcar, a car2go car, and more, living without cars or with fewer cars per person becomes much more convenient and achievable.

Update: Here are a few additional points about the car2go model that some commenters have asked about:

  • Can you just take the car to an office in Herndon and leave it there until evening? No. There will be an initial boundary where you have to end each rental, perhaps the borders of DC. You can drive outside, but have to end inside.
  • What about meters? Johnson said they’re still trying to figure that out. If they don’t get permission to be at meters but can park in RPP zones, they can just arrange enough garage spaces downtown, and in neighborhoods there is enough room on RPP blocks.
  • Will cars get parked in rush hour only zones and then towed? Users will have to end a rental at a space that’s legal to park in all day, not a rush hour only space or something of that nature.

Also, Johnson said in a followup email that they don’t see this as an “either/or” between Zipcar and car2go. In fact, he suggested, many people who might not sign up for Zipcar might now do so because combining the two gives more flexibility.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.