Friday, October 23, 2015

Private Carsharing for Apartments and Condos

I recently got a question from a developer who wanted to offer carsharing to the residents of a building.  It's a great idea - offer carsharing as an amenity for the residents - making the pitch "your apartment comes with a car".

It's quite possible to do "in house" (literally) carsharing.  But unless you are willing to consider a pretty low tech approach, the set up costs of the software and installing the technology in the vehicles only a couple of vehicles can be a deterrent. 

One option to consider for only a couple of vehicles would be to contact any carshare companies operating in your city to find out what they would require to place vehicles in your building. They may suggest a "guaranteed monthly minimum" program, where you make up the difference between the revenues generated by users and the minimum amount - typically between $1,500 and $2,000 per vehicle per month, depending on the type vehicles that are placed.  The provider handles all aspects - placing the vehicles, maintenance, cleaning, etc. As with any carshare, drivers are responsible for filling the gas tank whenever it drops below 1/4 (using a fleet gas card), or plugging in a EV when they return it.  This guaranteed monthly minimum gives the building owner real incentive to promote the option to residents in order to reduce the monthly subsidy.

Example of a publicly accessible garage allowing
vehicles to be used by both residents and other
carsharing members.
If the building is located in the area where the carshare company has other vehicles, this further increases the attractiveness to your residents as there would be other vehicles nearby to choose from if the vehicles in the building were checked out, such as often happens on weekends.  

A consideration for condominiums is what's in the condominium agreement.  I've never seen one that allowed strangers (such as other carsharing members) access to a private garage.  And unless it's very early in the development process there's almost invariably one resident who will object.


Cell phone signals (needed for the on-board telematics unit
in each car rarely work in underground garages.
How the building's parking area is set up is a major consideration: if your parking area is behind a locked gate, the carshare vehicle is exclusively for the use of your residents.  If the garage is NOT behind a locked gate then you may have the option to allow other carshare members you may be able to set up the system so that only your residents can reserve and use the vehicles in your building (as well as you other carshare vehicles outside).  What options are possible depend on the capabilities of the carshare providers software system.

The Harbor Steps Case Study

For a couple of years the 720 unit luxury Harbor Steps apartment building in Seattle (see picture above) offered every tenant 5 hours of free usage per month.  While this offer sounds like it could be very expensive, it wasn't, for 2 reasons.  

  • They made a bulk buy of hours from the local carsharing company, Flexcar, so they got the lowest usage rate possible
  • They figured out that a substantial number of tenants didn't actually use their 5 hours every month so they were only paying a fraction of what it would have cost them if every resident had used their full amount.
(Yes, they eventually discontinued the offer, apparently because they didn't need to offer the amenity to attract renters.)

Note to carshare operators: this arrangement was also very attractive to Flexcar since it brought them a bunch of new customers, and, for those who used a car, their trips were often longer than the 5 free hours per month that Harbor Steps was subsidizing, so Flexcar got additional revenue at the normal retail rate.  (Warning: something that Flexcar didn't anticipate was how difficult it was going to be to program their software to split the trip charges at different rates.  So don't try this until you've talked to your IT department!)

Note: Don't get me wrong, low tech approaches can work just fine - in the right setting. Mechanical lockboxes, web scheduling and on your honor paper tracking of trips was the way many small carshares got started in the 1990s and early 2000s.  It's more definitely not as secure and much more labor intensive (although possibly a residents committee would take on the management).  The real challenge would be finding appropriate insurance, which won't be easy since typical carshare insurance is a specialized fleet policy, not available from the usual personal auto insurers. Insurance for this kind of "informal" carsharing can be a big issue and should be the first task in setting up this kind of service.