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- (Photo: Joshua Yospyn/TBD)
Two tiny blue and white smartcars floated across Rhode Island Avenue NW one afternoon last week and in a graceful, quick turn, parked in front of 1710 Rhode Island. This address marks Car2Go's new D.C. office but as of last week, days before the car-sharing service's official launch, construction crews still labored. No one could look away from the unusual sight of the 8.8-foot-long cars as they approached.
"What are you laughing at?" called a smiling Paul DeLong, Car2Go's director of North American marketing and sales, to one amused onlooker.
Out of the cars emerged DeLong and Katie Stafford, the service's communications manager for the U.S. and Canada. The Austin-based duo is responsible for packaging the service to its half dozen cities on this side of the Atlantic and ushering in new communities. They greet me with plenty of cheer regarding the 200-car launch, which happened over this past weekend at two Busboys and Poets locations. The Daimler service launched in Europe in 2008 and markets itself as a distinctive alternative to the District's other car-sharing companies like Zipcar and the more recent Hertz On Demand and advertises one-way trips within the city at prices beginning at 38 cents a minute plus tax. Riders "can go to work [with a Car2Go vehicle] and leave it!" DeLong said. Members can find available vehicles through the Car2Go smartphone app, online, or simply by looking at a car's windshield (see photos here). Then all they need is to enter their card and a four-digit PIN number and can park in any unrestricted metered or residential space within the "home area" of the city. More than 70,000 people worldwide now use the service, according to Daimler.
Many in D.C., from Councilmember Tommy Wells to Navy Yard Commissioner David Garber to the folks at the District Department of Transportation, have noticed the new transportation alternative and new cars parked on District streets starting this week. "I took it four times this weekend," Ryan Gregor tweeted about Car2Go. "Taxis? Weekend metro? You done."
Tried @car2goDC 's Smart Car last night and couldn't shake the urge to roll down the window and yell "Wheee!!!"— Russell M (@bluecrabby) March 26, 2012
The District government spent the last several months working out an agreement for how Car2Go will operate on city streets and plans to continue monitoring the service. "During the initial year of the program, DDOT will also work to evaluate the benefits and impacts to the transportation system," write the city's car-sharing manager Josh Moskowitz and policy, planning, and sustainability director Sam Zimbabwe on March 23, "through data on usage provided by car2go and a survey of members to understand who is using the service." The city has supported car-sharing since 2005 with its 80+ curbside parking spaces, which last year underwent a tense and expensive bidding war among multiple companies. Car2Go initially won some of the spots but no longer has them. Car2Go sees D.C. as a new flagship for the East Coast, according to its marketing director, as it launches the service in Portland on the West Coast this week.
"D.C. is an anchor for all of us," DeLong told me outside the new local office last week. The man is, befitting his title, an evangelist for what Car2Go represents. "I've gotta be honest with you, John — I love it."
DeLong spent 15 years working on the heavy truck side of Daimler's operations and now enthusiastically talks up the benefits of car-sharing when I speak to him. "No bullshit," he assures me, "I do feel I'm making a difference in people's lives." His infectious cheer continues as he shows me the fold-out marketing materials, the interior of the cars, the room for luggage in the back, and more. DeLong's passion is similar to the forces I observe driving other modern transportation companies, from Zipcar to Uber. DeLong sells not just transportation but personality, lifestyle, and a broader sense of community. Community matters to him, he says, and in today's world, that manifests in every sort of PR endeavor from tweets to launch parties to Facebook and friendly front offices. He sees his job as, in part, to educate. As I talk with DeLong and Stafford in a half-built office, he points to their casual clothing and emphasizes they're "not coat and tie."
Car2Go may pose the greatest competition to long-standing champion of car-sharing Zipcar. Yet the services aren't mutually exclusive, and Zipcar's 60,000+ regional members may well find room for Car2Go, too. Each service offers its own pros and cons. With Zipcar, you have a bigger vehicle that fits more passengers. With Car2Go, you can leave the vehicle at a different spot than you picked it up. DeLong notes that with Car2Go, you won't stress over returning the car. What I'm curious about is, as Lydia DePillis also notes at City Paper and I've wondered before, the balance of Car2Go cars throughout the city. Car2Go North America leader Nicholas Cole told the Post it all evens out: "They tend to go to the business, restaurant and shopping districts during the day. At night, they tend to go to residential areas. They work themselves out." But really? Will that remain convenient for members? Capital Bikeshare has to truck its bikes around from station to station to create a balanced network. Earlier this year, Stafford told me that staff monitors the locations of the cars and last week DeLong spoke to me about "getting the sense of the city as far as usage patterns," so the company will likely adjust as needed.
Expect the next market advantage to be electric. All three of our local car-sharing companies have begun moving in that direction, with Car2Go debuting the country's first all-electric car-sharing fleet in San Diego last year, Hertz opening electric-vehicle charging stations in Union Station, and last week, Zipcar announcing an EV pilot program in Chicago. D.C.'s infrastructure isn't yet ready for an electric-car network, Car2Go believes, but one day it may be possible.
"If we could go all EV," DeLong said, "that would be great."
Car-sharing models are built on environmental consciousness as well as convenience, and any company that can market an alternative to gasoline in a financially viable way will have cachet with any potential driver. But the novelty of smart cars alone may also attract new members for Car2Go, I suspect, based on the reactions of so many passersby on Rhode Island.
"People keep looking at them!" Stafford declared with a smile as we walked into the company's new office.