Saturday, February 04, 2012

Carsharing Competition Returns to Washington DC

National capitals seem to have a way of attracting carsharing companies:  London, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam all have several competing carshare operators.  With the demise of Flexcar in late 2007, Zipcar has had Washington DC mostly to itself.  

Now both Hertz On Demand and car2go have announced a full-scale operations.  Hertz On Demand publicly launching the city and car2go intending to launch later this year.   This will be an interesting year in DC!

Zipcar — is the big kahuna of casharing, with 850+ vehicles in the DC metro area, including Arlington, Virginia across the river (arguably the city with the most  transportation options and most progressive transportation policies in the US (except for taxing carsharing) and several cities in Maryland.  Zipcar was the big loser in a DC DOT parking space bidding fracas last year, but the hegemony was bound to end.  And Zipcar is no stranger to parking bidding wars, having driven up carsharing parking costs in several other cities when they entered the market.

With the return of competition to Washington, Zipcar has competition in all four of what it calls its "established markets" — Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.  These cities were all launched between 2000-2005.  (That these markets are their "established" markets always seemed a bit arbitrary to me, since they now operate several markets established by Flexcar of the same vintage, and which were launched with similar level of investment - Seattle (2000) and Portland (1998).

DC's thoughtful online new source TBD Online thinks Hertz and car2go may be "better deals" than Zipcar, primarily because of no annual fees, but Zipcar has shown it will match and beat the deals of competitors in other markets, so I fully expect them to effectively counter with equally attractive new member packages, especially when the weather gets better and the spring marketing swings into action.  And pricing for Hertz and Zip are essentially the same and car2go's pricing really isn't comparable.

Hertz On Demand has had a couple of cars in the area for several years and has quietly started to build out their fleet with 10 cars in a couple of neighborhoods when I was in DC in January for TRB.  Hertz says they're planning to get to 100 vehicles in phase I, but didn't give any idea how long that might be.  The recently launched batter electric rental cars at Union Station will be converted to Hertz Car Rental to On Demand service.

Hertz has indicated they would NOT be offering one-way service, at least not initially, as they do in New York City.  But, my guess is they will do start offering one-way to the airports sooner rather than later.  Although offering one-way to airports is great for marketing and a wonderful service for customers, it's probably closer to self-drive taxi than anything else.  In the meantime, their vehicles have the clunky but useful Never Lost navigation system and their insurance has a $250 deductible rather than $750 for Zipcar.

Car2Go has been long-rumored to be eyeing Washington and now it's real.  The "floating parking" service area spans the entire District of Columbia, but excludes several areas - including the National Mall - presumably in hopes of avoiding huge vehicle relocation issues that Capitol BikeShare continues to struggle with.  The Smart vehicles will be gas, not electric.   I expect that car2go will be very well received in DC, already a very multi-modal town.

I'm still waiting to see what sort of impact car2go's unique one-way service only with Smart cars has on traditional "round-trip" carsharing services.  My suspicion that the small 2-seat vehicle defines a different type of trip than that of "round trip" carsharing with its bigger 4-5 passenger vehicles, is now somewhat confirmed in other car2go cities.  Fortunately, an early study from Europe is showing that vehicle ownership rates for car2go members is lower after joining, though not as much as traditional round-trip carsharing services.

Some Other Perspectives on Competition

Is competition bad or good for carsharing?  It sort of depends on who you're asking.  It's probably good for the companies, since multiple players in the market likely provides some legitimacy to this new mobility option in the minds of some prospective customers.  But as far as the allocation of public resources, such as on-street parking spaces, it may be a mixed bag since most customers are only members of one service, at least of the round-trip type (I fully expect many Zipcar and Hertz On Demand members will also have car2go membership.)  

For what it's worth: during the competition deliberations when Zipcar was acquiring Streetcar in London at least one city (Islington) reported to the Competition Commission, that it preferred to keep its partnership with only a single carsharing operator since they felt it would be better for residents since they could be assured of using every carsharing in the area, and was certainly easier for them administratively.

Meanwhile, down in Raleigh, North Carolina, there are complaints that competition is hurting the growth of carsharing.  Actually, I doubt it's the competition as much as the lack of commitment by the carsharing companies.  WeCar has never put much juice into marketing WeCar that I've seen and the Zipcar operation there is on two college campuses and, in general, they seem to keep these operations close to campus and not use them as springboards to developing city-wide operations.