When Clarice Gray’s car was repossessed almost a year ago, the Roseland resident turned to social media for help.
“I was looking for a creative way to get back into a car,” said Gray who used a mix of public transit and Uber to get from her Far South Side home to school and her job as a nursing assistant in the south suburbs. The two-hour bus commute on Pace, usually a 20-minute car ride, was taking its toll on her.
Gray was searching for ride-sharing services when she came across a peer-to-peer car-sharing app called Getaround on Twitter. She signed up and by the weekend, Gray had rented wheels from a stranger.
“I didn’t even know there was a market for that,” said Gray, 30. “It is like the reverse of Uber. Instead of somebody using their car to drive you, you’re using their car to drive. I was shocked to see that other people would trust [people they don’t know] to use their vehicle.”
Car sharing (renting cars from companies on a short-term basis) and its fledgling cousin, peer-to-peer car sharing (renting cars from individuals on a short-term basis), is growing in Chicago. Called the Airbnb for cars, peer to peer allows owners to rent out their cars for as low as $5 an hour on Getaround, which insures every rental up to $1 million.
The target audience for both forms of car sharing has traditionally been young white urban professionals —mostly millennials—while low-income and communities of color, which often have limited public transportation options, haven’t been part of the market for such shared-economy services.
The Shared-Use Mobility Center wants to change that. The nonprofit center partnered with San Francisco-based Getaround to create a peer-to-peer car-sharing pilot program in several communities in Chicago, including Bronzeville, Pilsen, Bridgeport and Rogers Park. The pilot will study the impact of car-sharing usage in low and moderate- income communities, while demonstrating the need for more equitable shared mobility options—from bikes to cars – for communities and people struggling with transportation choices.
Launched six months ago, the pilot has nearly 5,000 owners and renters and 75 vehicles. The two-year initiative is funded through a $715,000 Federal Highway Administration grant. Evanston is also part of the pilot program.
Public transportation can’t do it all, experts say. Nationally, regional transit systems focus on bringing people into a city’s central business district, leaving gaps at the neighborhood level, where errands to the grocery store or attending church may require a vehicle. And as jobs increasingly locate in the suburbs, people need more transportation options.
The Shared-Use Mobility Center created a mapping tool that shows car- sharing services like Getaround, ZipCar, GM-owned Maven and Enterprise CarShare dominate along the north lakefront, downtown and the near South Side. But predominately black communities on the city’s South and West sides lack the services.
“We approached them [Getaround] because we wanted to test strategies for expanding peer-to-peer car sharing in low-income areas and in lower density areas,” the center’s executive director Sharon Feigon said. “We thought that the model, the way they have it set up, was very millennial young professional oriented.”
The pilot focuses on the communities because they could benefit the most, Feigon said. Peer-to-peer car sharing could fill gaps in public transit, provide an extra income off an asset that usually sits idle for 90 percent of the time and reduce people’s carbon footprint.
But she emphasized that the marketing of these services rarely targets communities of color or generates their buy in.
Gray, who signed up for Getaround before the pilot was launched, had to travel 15 miles to pick up the rented car at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus.
The inconvenience was worth it, she said. “Transportation is a very necessary part of life for me.”
A racial divide in car sharing
Nationally, car sharing has increased dramatically since 2004, when 52,000 members were sharing 907 vehicles, according to the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, the number was 1.1 million members sharing 16,754 cars among 23 car-sharing operators. (These numbers do not reflect peer-to-peer car sharing.)
Racial demographics on car sharing are limited, but survey data suggest that most participants are white, highly educated and digital native young millennials.
“We have much less understanding as to why this is the case,” said Elliot Martin of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
“Is it an issue of positioning? Is it an issue of outreach and education?” he asked. “We do know that there is a certain demographic profile that has taken to these systems. I think it is an open question and certainly an important policy question as to what can be done to broaden the demographic appeal of these systems.”
Since most car-sharing services begin as tech startups and are experimental in nature, the goal is getting people to use the service—not necessarily who uses it, Martin said. But greater adoption begins with removing barriers. High membership fees or a credit card requirement could be cost-prohibitive for some underserved communities, he noted.
The answer for Feigon is simple — work with neighborhood organizations in its pilot area to do outreach about the service. Adoption, she said, comes from knowing the service exist, that it is legitimate, how it works, and being comfortable with strangers taking the keys to your car.
“We want to create a program that is going to work, that is going to make sense and … build trust in the program,” she said. “We are trying to breakdown those barriers and get usage.”
Feigon’s experience operating the city’s first car-sharing program for 11 years ago shaped the pilot’s approach. In 2002, she launched IGO CarSharing while working for the Center for Neighborhood Technology. It eventually expanded to some 40 communities including Bronzeville, South Shore and Austin with a membership of 16,000 and 300 cars. IGO was sold in 2013 to Enterprise Holdings and rebranded as Enterprise CarShare.
“When we put cars in different neighborhoods, there were a lot of usage and excitement about it,” Feigon said. “It is just logical. You put cars in places where there is a need and people are going to use it.”
Building a neighborhood market for car sharing
One of those organizations hoping for a similar effect is Centers for New Horizons. The mobility center is partnering with the Bronzeville-based social service organization to do public outreach. The agency’s CEO and executive director, Christa Hamilton, sees the program as an asset to the center’s clients, more than 200 employees and the community at large.
Clients in the agency’s workforce development program can rent cars to go on job interviews or take children in its early education programs to doctors’ appointments. Employees can earn extra cash by renting their cars while at work. And the community could exchange vehicles in designated spots in the agency’s parking lot in a safe environment.
“As a car owner, it is a lot easier to do things with a vehicle sometimes,” Hamilton said, noting that with more jobs moving out to the suburbs, a car is essential. “It wouldn’t be their [clients] main mode of transportation, but it will be that convenience they need to do certain things.”
Gray uses Getaround for the convenience. It allows her to book a car using her debit card and she doesn’t have to wait for a vehicle.
“It is more time efficient. You can rent a car at the moment that you need it,” said Gray who used the service to run errands, go grocery shopping, attend family outings and take her 6-year-old daughter to and from school. Without the overhead, including the cost of gas, insurance and parking, Gray saved up enough money to purchase her own car.
Like Gray, Robin Cottrell also had to leave her West Englewood community to make car sharing work for her. She rents her 2015 Nissan Versa mostly to college kids living in the South Loop. Cottrell pays $175 a month to park her car in a South Loop parking lot, which she says eats into her profits, which can be between $400 and $800 a month. She targets downtown because Getaround has not expanded its service into South Side communities.
“It would be really nice if I can rent the car in front of my house,” said Cottrell, who is not part of the pilot program.
Some cities, like Buffalo, New York, have shown that low-income communities can support car sharing.
Buffalo CarShare carved a niche serving the low-income, but racially mixed community of Allentown. Although not the primary intent of the service, Buffalo CarShare’s former co-founder Creighton Randall said it just happened that way. He and five other people founded the service in 2009 before it was eventually sold to ZipCar in 2015.
The city’s racial and economic demographics (38.6 percent black and 10.5 percent Hispanic) shaped its customer base. And unlike most Internet and mobile app-based car-sharing service, Randall’s operation was a brick and mortar shop. That visibility attracted a range of clients from the elderly who preferred personal interactions to those without Internet access. Half of Buffalo CarShare’s members made less than $25,000, he said.
“We built the program around folks coming into the door,” said Randall, who now works with the Shared-Use Mobility Center. “We really didn’t set out to specifically appeal to a certain income bracket or a certain race. We were trying to figure out how to make the program work for Buffalo.”