Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Periodically I have been documenting my alternative transportation fun and games on here, and I have one last installment in the adventure known as Car Sharing. I wrote a piece before about RelayRides and GetAround, both of which I belong to and have used. There is also ZipCar, but I find their annual fee to be a little excessive.

Which leaves CAR2GO, which is a similar service to ZipCar with a couple of differences. First, you can end your trip anywhere within the “home area” in city parking spots. There are no designated parking spots. Second, there are over 200 cars all over Portland, which is substantially more than ZipCar (I believe). But the biggest difference is, with CAR2GO, you can’t choose what size or type of car you get…

Your car looks like this.

Car2Go

Pricing is pretty straightforward: 38 cents per minute, up to a maximum of $13.99 per hour, and no more than $72.99 per day. No tolls (not an issue in Portland anyhow), no gas fees, no insurance fees, no on-street parking fees.  You just get in, drive, get out, and they charge your credit card. You don’t replace the gas you use, it’s included in the price per minute.

So when you compare it to the cost of a one-day rental from a traditional service like Hertz, it really only makes sense when you are going to use it for under 3 hours. It has an environmental appeal, as obviously the cars get great mileage, and in fact there are electrics in the fleet — complete with on-street charging stations. But for somebody without a car living in one of the cities that offers this particular service (Portland, Austin, and Toronto among them), it can be really convenient for certain types of trips.

However, the experience does have its… curiosities. Mainly the fact that the per-minute charge changes your mental approach to the trip you’re on.

So my mission on Monday: CostCo! That’s out past my place, and way outside the home area. And knowing that there’s a per-minute charge for using the car, my planning begins before I even pick up the vehicle. There’s also planning required for the end of the trip as well. All trips have to end within the home area too, but I do not live within the home area. So when I end my trip, I still have to get back to my apartment!

In order to keep my costs down, I don’t want to leave work and just grab one of the 6 units that are within a block of my office; I want to get one as close to CostCo as I can get. That means less traffic, fewer miles, and fewer minutes. So I hop the bus right out to the edge of the home area, and find one of these little roller skates for my adventure.

Hold your membership card against the windshield over the card reader, and the doors unlock. Open the door, and a friendly voice greets you from the on-board navigation system. Then just climb in, enter your PIN, retrieve the key and start ‘er up! Pretty simple so far.

But once you turn that key, time is literally money. Every stop sign, every stoplight, every dork making a left-hand turn in rush-hour traffic, every EVERYTHING costs you money! So it’s not a trip, it’s a RACE!

GO! GO! GO!

MOVE IT! MOVE IT! MOVE IT! You people are no longer just annoying fellow motorists for whom I hold moderate disdain, but in the final analysis give little more consideration to than gum on the sidewalk; now you’re hurting my bottom line!

MMMMMMMOOOOOOOOVVVVVVVVEEEEEEEEE!!!

Up Burnside towards my place, and that’s when the mechanical character of this car really becomes evident. I don’t know if it was the individual unit I had, or whether this is common to all of them, but the transmission sucked. Vrooooooom… (*GASP*) AAAAAArooooooommm… (*GASP*) AAAAAAArooooooooommmmmm…. Once it got to third gear it was fine. But I was thankful for the full headrests on the seats — I needed them! This thing was jerking me around like dice in a cup. And it was just as bad on flat roads.

Also, going up such a long, steep hill was an interesting way to get acquainted with the nose of the car — or more accurately, the complete lack of one. My lovely wife will tell you that I am prone to hyperbole, but I swear this is not an exaggeration: no matter how far you lean forward in the driver’s seat, you cannot see the hood.

Similarly, your tailbone is roughly 3 feet in front of the rear bumper. This is one tiny, tiny vehicle. But despite its abundant glass and scrawny dimensions, the thick pillar behind the doors created a blind spot that was big enough to give me the willies.

So up and over the hill, onto the highway for about a mile, and then over to Aloha to my destination. The one thing that was a pleasant surprise about the car was that, despite its size, you never feel like you’re unstable. I fully expected to dread every corner, wondering when I was going to turtle the thing. But there was never a hint of instability with the unit, which given its dimensions is pretty remarkable.

Parking is simple, and the microscopic turning radius of the little sucker means you can navigate into nearly any size space regardless of how poorly the bozos in the spots next to you have positioned their Toyota 4-Runners. I didn’t test this theory, but it’s my assertion that this thing can corner so tight as to be able to do a U-turn inside the dimensions of a standard parking spot.

Then out of the little gaffer and into CostCo went I, on what the service calls a “stopover.” Get out, take the key, lock the doors, and go do whatever you intend to do. However, with the pay-by-the-minute charges continuing to accrue, the Talladega 500 attitude spills over from the driver’s seat to the shopping cart.

Okay, where’s the cereal aisle? Cereal… cereal… cereal! Okay, Frosted Mini-Wheats, got ‘em. Raisin Bran… Raisin Bran… I know they have Raisin Bran… No Raisin Bran? NO RAISIN BRAN?!? I was lured down this aisle by the promise of Raisin Bran, and now looking for it cost me 21 cents! BASTARDS!

Coffee, coffee, okay there’s my coffee, near the entrance to the aisle, good. What’s next? And which end of the aisle is that one on? Better to go to the end of this aisle? Where are there going to be fewer people? I saw some woman with four rambunctious children heading down to the end of the adjacent aisle, if they turn my way I’ll get stuck — another 9 cents…

Hey, don’t laugh, these charges will add up quick!

What else… Hey, butter! I forgot to put that on my list, but I need butter! Nice job, I just saved enough on that to pay for the Raisin Bran incident. Now what?

Parmesan cheese. That will be in the case over there… Hustle, hustle, hustle… Okay, gouda… romano… gruyere… gorgonzola… what the hell is appenzell? Parmesan! Oh, and it’s the good stuff too, and that’s a good price per pound. But do I want to spend that much on parmesan right now? How much do I use, and how long does it keep in a block like that? Oh, but here is parmesan that’s already grated, and it’s a little more per pound, but it’s less money out of pocket. Now, I can get a much smaller quantity at Fred Meyer that is a higher cost per pound and probably isn’t as good quality as this stuff, but am I enough of a parmesan connoisseur to even tell— STOP! SHUT UP! See, idiot? In your attempts to identify your precise location on the demand curve for parmesan cheese, you’ve cost yourself 67 CENTS!

Which, when you think about it, adds a staggering new dimension to the task of comparison shopping. If every minute spent calculating the optimal value between two given items actually cost you money out of your pocket, how long would you spend calculating, and how much as a percentage of the total price per unit would be enough savings to make those calculations worth it? That’s a differential equation I don’t even want to think about…

From there it was chocolate chips, dishwasher tabs (aren’t those the most convenient things on the planet?), and a failed — but brief — search for Ziploc bags. Then I lucked into a quick dash through the Express Lane, made all but worthless by the 19 cents I was charged while waiting for the anti-theft gatekeepers at the door of the place putting highlighter marks on receipts without checking anybody’s shopping cart for stolen items. That job is like a fake battery-operated security camera that any idiot can plainly see isn’t hooked up to anything. And, I’m sure, it’s just as effective.

At any rate, back to the car to load up my purchases, so pop the hatch. Pop the hatch. Hello, little car, I’m pressing the button and yanking your handle, so pop the damn hatch!

Can’t pop the hatch.

Okay, so I will lean the seat forward and load my stuff in through the door. See I can just… lean… the seat… where’s the handle to… surely there’s a lever or someth…

Seat doesn’t lean forward.

So there I am, bent over and half-sideways, trying to squeeze these oversized items one by one between the seat and the door frame to get them into the cargo area. Thanks, CAR2GO. Really convenient little product you have here. This is probably just a means of milking an extra $1.12 out of the unsuspecting suckers like me who don’t yet know that the hatch doesn’t open!

(I found out later that it’s the glass on the hatch that opens, not the entire hatch. And I drove the whole rest of the trip with that glass unlatched.)

From CostCo I dashed home to unload my groceries — squeezing them through the seats to extract them, after first finding them since some of them had fallen down to the floorboards during the trip. And then it was time for this frenetic journey to end.

The remainder of this quest was uneventful until I tried to end my trip. Once the car is parked and instructed that the trip is over, it uses the cell network to attempt to contact the CAR2GO main computers. That’s apparently the one technical aspect of this service that they are still working out the bugs. It took me four parking spots and a call to Customer Service to finally get to the point where E.T. could phone home.

The gal at H.Q. walked me through the final steps, informed me of the situation with the glass on the hatchback, and also submitted a request that I be credited for the time spent darting around the side streets of Goose Hollow looking for a hitch for my little Shetland pony. With that, my first encounter with CAR2GO had come to an end.

*          *          *          *          *

All in all, this isn’t a bad service. Sure, the car has its quirks, and you need to understand that this is not your father’s Oldsmobile. It’s more like playing Mario Kart, except with far more severe consequences. CAR2GO really is best used for trips that go from A to B and then stop — no stop-overs, nothing fancy. Just get to where you’re going and walk away. If you understand that from the outset and use the service that way, you’ll probably have a lot better experience.

However, the ticking money bomb aspect of the cost per minute is a little unnerving. Sure, that is a fair and accurate way of measuring and charging for the car’s use. Additionally it encourages more efficient behavior in advance trip planning, route choice, consolidation of errands, etc.

But it also sets the driver’s mind to the default position of “go fast,” instead of “be safe,” or “drive courteously,” or “you’ll get 15 to life if they can prove you ran that old guy down on purpose.” I’m not certain that’s a good way to maintain the overall safety and usefulness of our roadways. Surely some genius can arrive at a pricing model that is a more reasonable balance between economic efficiency and social/automotive responsibility.

My trip took 1 hour and 21 minutes; total cost of $16.27 after my credit was applied. That’s much lower cost than a day’s rental through Hertz; easily a fraction of the fare for a similar cab ride; and the trip was completed in roughly half the time that the same trip would have taken using public transit.

Will I use it again? Probably, but I think if I have any kind of errands outside the CAR2GO home area I’ll probably choose a different alternative. I think one-way, under-half-hour trips to destinations more than a half mile off the nearest bus line are probably the best candidates for this kind of thing. But only time will tell how useful it turns out to be among my stable of transportation alternatives.

It was fortunate that the Customer Service gal was so helpful, because I was running out of places to park the car near the grocery store. I wanted to stop there before getting on the bus to go home.

I still needed parmesan cheese.

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