A car2go smart car is often stationed in the Torrance, Calif. office park that includes the offices Bobit Business Media, the publisher of Auto Rental News.
The car-sharing service had been up and running for a little more than a month, and the city of Torrance had to call a town hall meeting to air residents’ grievances.
Torrance, a largely middle class ‘burb tucked into a collection of beach cities running south of Los Angeles, is within car2go’s new South Bay service area. Owned by Daimler, the car-sharing company specializes in one-way, point-to-point rentals, meaning users are free to drop off and pick up a vehicle (exclusively Daimler’s smart fortwo) in a legal parking spot anywhere within a designated parameter.
The city agreed to car2go because it proposed a new mobility option to residents and would thus present an overall benefit to the South Bay. Many residents weren’t buying it.
“This is personal rental property stored on public streets,” said a real estate broker. “Who would stop U-Haul from putting their trucks on public streets? Who will stop Enterprise or Budget?”
One resident complained of three cars in one intersection, and was bemused to see car2go employees playing “musical chairs” with the cars to comply with the rule that any vehicle must move within 72 hours. “I see [car2go employees] in blue shirts but no renters,” she said.
“It used to be you could just ask a neighbor to move their car,” said another resident. “Now anyone from anywhere can come in to pick up a car. We don’t know who’s checking out our properties.”
The manager of a senior complex questioned why four smart cars were seen in front of her building last week. “We’re seniors, 80 plus. We don’t know how to use smartphones. We won’t use those cars, and we’re apprehensive of strangers.”
A work-at-home small business owner, and others, brought up the city ordinance that prevented vehicles with business signage to park in residential areas. “I can’t put my business name in front of my house, why should they,” he said.
Another questioned the liability of car2go users around the bars at the Hermosa Pier. A couple asked if the smart cars could be relegated to the light rail parking lot instead of anywhere on city streets. Two more protested the $108 fee car2go pays the city per vehicle as being too low.
Ride sharing was brought up (ironically, understanding the issues Uber and Lyft are facing) as a better choice to get around, because the drivers own their cars. As such, there is no net gain of cars in the neighborhood, and the extra taxes on driver’s income are good for the city.
Another resident contended that car2go is a direct competitor to the local transit system, one that is “generously funded by our tax dollars,” he said.
This was a common refrain of the dissenters: “I’m not opposed to the idea, but ‘not in my backyard.”
Will Berry, car2go’s area location manager, graciously accepted the comments. He apologized for “the clunky rollout,” with “too many cars placed in the wrong neighborhoods.” He said the company was constantly refining its “heat map” of rental activity to properly station the cars.
Yes, there were residents who showed up in favor of car2go, though they were outnumbered four to one. They spoke — at times passionately — about being able to sell one of the family vehicles and cut insurance rates by a full third.
They were quick to poke holes in many of the arguments, some red herrings. There is plenty of parking in the city, they said, and many have a hard time finding a car2go car. “If you’re looking for a volunteer spot, how about in front of my house,” one said.
The service doesn’t compete with buses; it complements it. Besides, public transportation takes too long.
The idea that U-Haul would start leaving trucks in public parking is ludicrous, said another. And in terms of the ban on vehicle advertising, you’d have to enforce that ordinance against the plumbers, tradesmen and mobile businesses that regularly park in their own driveways.
A few good suggestions were thrown into the mix, such as adding new signees’ street addresses to the heat map. Another asked if residents could designate their area as a “no-park zone” that could be added to the app. (Berry was mum on this suggestion.)
Steve Lance, a transportation consultant with the South Bay who helped shepherd the car2go deal, weighed in. “We are always looking to improve mobility options,” he said. “We can’t ‘just get along’ in the next generation with three cars in the family.”
And then it got heated, as if some pent-up emotion hadn’t gotten a chance to be released. The real estate broker wagged his finger. “You’re putting these smart cars on the road that Daimler can’t sell anyway!” he offered, before exiting.
“They want to take cars off the road — they even said so!” exclaimed one woman. It was explained to her that the idea was to alleviate traffic. “Ma’am, no one is asking you to sell your car,” Lance said.
Really a Problem?
Is there really a parking problem, or are residents just annoyed at the little blue and white cars?
The South Bay has a total population of a little more than 1 million residents, with about 600,000 private vehicles in 2011, according to a study by South Bay Cities’ Council of Governments. The South Bay agreement with car2go allows for 150 cars within a 28 square-mile perimeter.
I think that car2go and the city really just suffer from a public relations problem. They didn’t properly prep residents to the cars that would be appearing in their neighborhoods, and they could’ve done a better job explaining that the initiative is designed to produce a net loss of cars overall.
An elderly gentleman was the last to speak, taking the floor resolutely as if to conjure Jimmy Stewart. He said he came to Torrance on the GI Bill in 1950, and stayed because of the town’s sense of community.
“I came here with hope; I want to leave with hope,” he said. “We used to look out for each other, reach out to each other. Whatever happens, we need to preserve the values of community.”
Through wistful smiles, the crowd politely applauded. None of it was directly related to the car2go issue at all; in fact, he could’ve made that speech at any town hall meeting. But in the face of the lightning quick pace of change in society today, it’s a sentiment we all need to be reminded of sometimes.