Car sharing in the West - really

For many West Coast city dwellers the mere thought of a car conjures up images of parking tickets, traffic troubles, and sky-high insurance.

So it is no surprise that Portland, Ore., is one of the first US cities to adopt a car-sharing program. Participants drive one of 10 Chrysler Neons or a pickup truck, scattered in leased parking spots around the city, and pay per use.

"My car was the most stressful part of my life," says Chris Quinn. "Hassle-free reasons were a big factor in my decision to join a car share. But I also didn't like to be a polluter."

After years of success in Europe and Canada, car-sharing programs are beginning to take root in the Western US. In addition to Portland, they exist in San Francisco, Boulder, Colo., and will be coming to Seattle this fall. The idea may be creeping across the country, as Chicago anticipates a car share soon.

Environmental concern is one issue pulling West Coasters out of their gas-guzzlers and into a car shared with strangers. Environmental friendliness is a perk, but, the bigger perk is the savings to their pocketbooks.

After signing up at the 16-month-old CarSharing Portland, participants can reserve a car for $1.50 per hour and 40 cents a mile by phoning a computerized reservation service. Those who use a car infrequently and for short trips around town see the biggest savings.

"More than one hour to two days and auto rental is where you want to be, and where we want you to be," says David Brook, president of CarSharing Portland.

Although most participants live within five blocks of a car, inconvenience is still the biggest complaint. They can usually get a car, but not always the one nearest to them.

"It's cheaper to have a share car for your second car," says participant Gary Hood. "We still have one car because sometimes we call and the car we usually use is already reserved." Public officials are hoping to lure more commuters by packaging new car-sharing programs with bus and ferry systems. Participants won't have to take their cars to work, they argue, but will still have access to one when they get there.

The ultimate goal of car-share is to educate, proponents say. People will drive less and use more public transport once they correlate the real cost of driving with the amount they drive, these advocates say.

"Once you've shelled out thousands of dollars for something sitting in your driveway, you're going to use it," Mr. Brook says. "Right now, it's too early to tell if people are actually driving less once they begin using our cars."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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