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Not your car, Hour Car

June 09, 2010 By Jeremy Dennison, Policy Research Associate
Though Minnesota 2020 continues to promote a more robust transportation network for the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota, the simple fact is most people in the state, especially outside the metro, remain dependent on getting around in a car.

While buses and light rail have made strong inroads into the Cities and suburbs, and ridership continues to increase each year, many parts of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs remain inconveniently just beyond transit's reach. Enter Hour Car, a puny offshoot of St. Paul's Neighborhood Energy Connection. The nonprofit Hour Car project is a car sharing program, similar to Zip Car, a business operating in various large US cities and around college campuses. Christopher Bineham, project manager of Hour Car, sees his program not as an alternative to bus and light rail, but rather another component in a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation system. The clear advantage of the program is that an Hour Car rental can reach locations not touched by buses or light rail in an environmentally-friendly way. Hour Car seeks to "right-size" automobile travel in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Does the program have a future outside the dense Metro?

On the eve of its fifth anniversary, the program remains modest; the company currently maintains a fleet of twenty-six fuel-efficient cars around the Twin Cities. Bineham says that the program has more than a thousand members, with 70% participating regularly. The program is self-sustaining through its membership fees.

These fees are also the backbone to Hour Car's idea of "right-sizing." As Bineham explains it, right-sizing stands in opposition to the way most drivers pay for their cars. Normally, the costs associated with the vehicle are paid for up front: gas, insurance, etc. Hour Cars converts these costs into user fees, allowing the driver to pick and choose when he/she wishes to pay to use a car. This option made sense for many local families in light of our recent recession. For some, the downturn rendered ownership of a second vehicle untenable. For others, it showed a second car to be an unjustifiable expense. In both instances, Hour Car proved a welcome alternative.  The ultimate goal, says Bineham, is to get people to think about how and why they use cars and encourage them to make more economical and more environmental-friendly decisions in determining when a car is necessary. 

For now, the Hour Car vehicles are only available for pickup and drop off in Minneapolis and St Paul. There are plans to expand the program across the Twin Cities and into first-ring suburbs. As the program stretches out into more sparsely populated areas, it becomes more difficult to maintain the model on which the Hour Car is based. The program relies on high density areas where the pick up and drop off points are conveniently accessed, such as campuses and major shopping areas. Yet paradoxically, the areas most likely to benefit from the introduction of the program are the sprawling, more isolated quarters not reached by current bus and rail routes.  Also, compared to public transit, Hour Car is not as economically feasible for many low-income Minnesotans.

Even so, is there a chance that a modified version of the program could be adopted in other Minnesota cities? Places like Rochester and Duluth might want to examine how they can tinker with the Hour Car idea and launch similar programs. In both places driving a car is a necessity, support for expanded bus service has grown and each house university campuses.

Rochester in particular would be well served by such a program because of both Mayo Clinic's constant influx of visitors and the town's sprawling layout.

While Hour Car is a good fit in the Twin Cities and has marketability in the state's regional centers, we must remind policymakers such modes are only a small part of a more comprehensive transportation infrastructure -- a complement rather than an alternative. 

Find out here if Hour Car is an option for you.


photo credit: Mulad, creative commons
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