The City’s DriveBoston Pilot Program Fails to Attract a Major Car-Share Player

Car2go has expressed interest in coming to Boston, but wasn’t enticed by the city’s recent proposal.
Car2go has expressed interest in coming to Boston, but wasn’t enticed by the city’s recent proposal. –Mario Roberto

Boston’s plan to reduce car ownership by spreading the use of car-sharing programs has hit a speed bump, months before any new shared vehicles are set to roll out on city streets.

No companies with experience running a “free-floating’’ car-share program, which is a major part of the city’s scheme, have decided to participate.

Car2go, a company that pioneered the free-floating model, has publicly acknowledged its desire to expand into Boston, and has been working with the city for more than two years, according to Mike DeBonville, car2go’s business development manager. But DeBonville told Boston.com that Boston’s pilot is not ambitious enough to allow car2go to set up a viable service.

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Monday was the deadline for car-share operators to respond to the Walsh administration’s request for proposals, which laid out the details of DriveBoston, an 18-month pilot program that would make some city-owned parking spaces available to car-share vehicles for the first time.

One part of the pilot program proposes selling up to 80 designated parking spaces to operators of “traditional’’ car-share systems that require drivers to pick up and drop off vehicles in the same spot. The other part plans to sell up to 150 special parking permits to one company that would allow shared vehicles to park in any residential, general, or metered parking spot in Boston without paying.

Bonnie McGilpin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, confirmed that only Zipcar and Enterprise, which for years have operated traditional car-sharing programs out of privately owned parking spaces in Boston, submitted proposals by the deadline. Both companies told Boston.com they had applied to buy 40 designated spots, the most the city will sell to any one company.

Unfilled Gaps

The 150 special free-floating permits, on the other hand, are aimed directly at operators like car2go, which has worked out similar “superpermits’’ with more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada, and its competitor DriveNow, a similar BMW service that operates in San Francisco and a handful of European cities.

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DriveNow did not respond to a request for comment.

But car2go’s Mike DeBonville said the company is passing on the city’s plan, which is overseen by the Transportation Department, because it offers far fewer of the permits than would be necessary to set up a fleet of shared vehicles capable of serving a city the size of Boston.

“We want a car to be within a five-minute walk for anybody at any given time,’’ DeBonville said. “With 150 [permits] it really, really limits your ability to provide a reliable service.’’

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Boston covers approximately 48 square miles. As laid out in the DriveBoston request for proposals, the “Native Zone’’ where free-floating car-share vehicles would be allowed to park includes the entire city, except for a small area around Logan Airport where drivers would be able to travel but not park.

In term of square mileage, Boston sits right between Columbus, Ohio (46 sq. miles), where car2go has 300 vehicles with superpermits, and Denver, Colorado (50 sq. miles), where it has 450 vehicles with the permits.

“Typically, we would be looking to start at 400 cars given the square mileage,’’ Debonville said. He said that although car2go is not interested in participating under the current details of the pilot program, the company would still be interested in coming to Boston if the city makes more permits available or shrinks the Native Zone, so that it can be adequately covered with fewer cars.

Between a Rock and a Parking Space

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Both options would seem to present difficulties for city officials. Shrinking the Native Zone would require delicate decisions about which areas of Boston deserve new car-share vehicles. One of the city’s explicit goals in embracing car sharing is “filling transit gaps’’ mostly found in outer areas of the city where T stops are sparse.

A map included in the request for proposals showing density of transit options around the city. —Transportation Department

Tightening the Native Zone around the center of the city would leave out those already underserved areas. On the other hand, limiting the Zone to outer neighborhoods would exclude the busiest areas of Boston and limit the usefulness of free-floating car-share vehicles.

The other option laid out by car2go¬ expanding the pilot program to include more superpermits¬ would bring the city face-to-face with an even more delicate topic in Boston: parking shortages.

Officials behind the DriveBoston pilot believe that over time, dynamic car-sharing options will encourage people to ditch their personal cars and actually ease parking congestion. Academic research backs up that belief, at least in the case of traditional car-share models. (The newer free-floating model has not yet been studied closely by independent third parties.)

But average citizens are not necessarily willing to wait two years to see if the academic research is right about the beneficial long-term effects of shared vehicles parked in front of the house. They might just want their curb space back, said Andy Thornley of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, who has been leading that city’s car-share pilot program, roughly the same size as the one Boston is proposing, since 2013.

“Curb parking is turf,’’ Thornley said. “Whereas we do have people saying, ‘Oh I’d love to have a car-share vehicle near my house’… we have other neighbors saying, ‘Get away from me, hands off my parking.’’’

“You’ll have that in Boston,’’ Thornley added. “You’re probably already hearing it.’’

Indeed, early reactions to the idea of more shared vehicles on the road in Boston were hesitant at best.

“There just aren’t enough spots for them in the first place,’’ Betsy Hall of the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association told The Boston Globe last month.

Zipcar to the Rescue?

A Zipcar employee finishes digging out a shared vehicle after last month’s blizzard. —Zipcar

So if city officials decide they are unwilling to include enough free-floating shared vehicles to attract car2go or DriveNow to Boston, what will happen to that portion of the pilot program?

The city did not comment directly on the question, but one option may be to accept Zipcar’s offer to expand into unfamiliar territory. Zipcar told Boston.com that in addition to applying for 40 designated parking spaces to support its traditional car-share operation, the company is interested in spearheading a free-floating service in Boston.

Zipcar noted it is not looking to launch a widespread free-floating service in other cities, but only to help Boston fill its needs.

“We understand the very different challenges faced by each city in which we operate,’’ said Lisa Feldman, Zipcar Boston’s general manager. “Any variation of free-floating that Zipcar creates in Boston would be developed in conjunction with the city and dedicated to meeting Boston’s specific transportation goals.’’

Zipcar did not share details about how many superpermits it is bidding on, but any foray into the free-floating model would be a departure for the company, which has operated a traditional, round-trip car-share service in Boston for 15 years.

The city did not comment on the potential for awarding superpermits to Zipcar, because Transportation Department officials have not yet reviewed the submission in details. According to the original request for proposals, new car-share licenses will be issued in the late spring.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority. It is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

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