Front Page - Search 

Car-sharing controversy
Free parking privileges upset some residents who pay

(Published April 17, 2006)

Staff Writer

The District's Department of Transportation recently reserved an additional 38 on-street parking spaces for vehicles owned by car-sharing companies Flexcar and Zipcar, helping to promote a program that city officials say will reduce traffic, air pollution and demands for parking.

But not everyone who supports the program's goals is happy with the increasing amount of public space that is being allotted to the for-profit companies' customers - or with the competition the reserved spaces, free for shared car users, presents to other motorists who must pay for their parking spaces.

Flexcar and Zipcar introduced the car-sharing concept to the District about five years ago. Both private companies, which serve more than 20,000 members between them, have one-year renewable contracts with the District's transportation department (DDOT) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for exclusive use of certain parking spaces on publicly owned space.

Flexcar, which started out with about 25 car-sharing vehicles in 2001, now operates more than 120 vehicles in the District, out of which 35 percent are hybrid cars. Zipcar, which also entered into the car-sharing scene in 2001, has expanded from 20 to 250 vehicles in the District.

According to a Zipcar spokesman, the company is growing steadily, adding about 25 cars each month. The proportion of hybrid cars for Zipcar is only 10 percent, although the company said that they also have some "environmentally friendly" vehicles that save on fuel by giving better gas mileage.

According to DDOT, research shows that each car-sharing vehicle serves from six to 10 individuals or households, with 20 percent of car-sharing households giving up their vehicle or forgoing the purchase of a new car.

"Car-sharing meets many of DDOT's goals - it reduces traffic congestion, air pollution and demand for parking while increasing access to alternative forms of transportation," said Michelle Pourciau, the city's interim director of transportation.

Out of approximately 250,000 curbside parking spaces in the city, a total of 86 on-street parking spaces - located in all eight wards of the city -- are reserved for the car-sharing companies' vehicles. As for Metro, a total of 320 parking spots are reserved for Flexcar and Zipcar -- 34 in Metrorail "kiss-and-ride" lots, 181 near Metrorail stations and 105 in urban neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area.

There are people who questioned why DDOT and Metro are not charging the two private companies for the exclusive use of these parking spaces.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mark Bjorge, SMD 2B05, said that although he is in favor of the car-sharing concept, he wonders if it is necessary to "provide free parking to these companies in order for our city to realize the benefits they promise."

On the other hand, Andrea Arnold -- a self-confessed "devoted member of Zipcar" -- offered a different view. She reasoned that these reserved car-sharing spots serve many more drivers than they would for private car owners. She does not agree that Flexcar and Zipcar should pay for the reserved spots.

"There should be some consistency," she said. "If car-sharing companies should pay for the use of curbside parking spaces, so should other private companies that get access to loading zones and taxicab stands."

Rick Rybeck, deputy associate director of the District's Transportation Policy and Planning Administration, acknowledged that DDOT reserves the right to charge a fee for access to these spaces in its contracts but has not yet done so. However, the decision will be reviewed when the entire program is evaluated towards the end of 2006, he said.

Rybeck maintained that the District is not giving away curbside parking to the car-sharing companies. In order to have access to curbside parking spaces, each company must comply with the specific provisions of its contract -- which include having D.C.-registered vehicles on both public space and private property that display D.C. license tags.

A Metro spokesman also said that WMATA officials have made no decision about charging the car-sharing companies for reserved parking spaces. In order to create more awareness for the car-sharing program, Metro provides a certain amount of free advertising for the car-sharing companies as well as sponsoring a limited amount of banners hanging in certain locations, he said.

Another person who disapproves of giving what she calls "free parking spaces to the private companies" is Annie McCormick, who became even more enraged when DDOT announced that there will be a penalty of $100 for unauthorized parking in the special designated car-sharing spaces and that these unauthorized vehicles may be towed.

McCormick posted an entry online in D.C. Watch's semiweekly "themail" newsletter asking, "Do they pay the D.C. government anything for the convenience and privilege for reserved spaces while we get ticketed and towed?"

Zipcar's regional vice president, Gabe Klein, said that "it makes perfect sense" to ticket unauthorized vehicles in car-sharing spaces, just as they get ticketed for using spaces reserved for handicapped motorists and commercial loading.

"If anyone is allowed to park in reserved spaces for car-sharing, it will very well defeat the purpose and goals of car-sharing," he said.

Just how profitable the car-sharing business has become in the District is unclear, as both Flexcar and Zipcar officials declined to discuss their companies' profits or to reveal the amount of annual taxes and fees they pay to the D.C. government.

While the argument about parking spaces goes on, another simmering debate has added to the complexity of the car-sharing issue.

Some car owners and residents say they have witnessed car-sharing vehicles with non-D.C. license plates parking in reserved car-sharing spots in the city. Under the car-sharing contract with DDOT, it is a violation to park non-D.C.-tagged car-sharing vehicles in those designated car-sharing spots, regardless of whether they are located on private or public space.

Flexcar's general manager, Ralph Burns, denied knowledge of any such transgressions. He said the complaining residents are simply not familiar with a "very complex arrangement," though he acknowledged that it is possible that someone has seen a non-D.C.-tagged car in a Flexcar spot in the District.

"We don't put non-District tagged cars into spots where they are not allowed," he said. "However, we do not have this restriction with the spots assigned by the Metro or the spots we lease from private companies. In these spots, we can have cars without District tags, but only for up to two weeks."

Zipcar's Klein said he is aware of only two such violations occurring in a six-month period. Although he could not remember the exact amount of fine imposed, he said that the entire amount is passed on to the car-sharing user for the violation.

But, according to Rybeck, DDOT has not caught any such violation to date by vehicles belonging to either of the car-sharing companies. When asked how much the fine would be for violating the rule, he said that the department has not decided because it has not happened. However, he said, in order to be fair, the amount should be higher than the $100 penalty for unauthorized parking in reserved car-sharing spots.

Rybeck added that officials are confident that the car-sharing companies are abiding by the rules as stated in their contracts, and that DDOT relies on D.C. residents to inform the city of any violation of car-sharing rules.

"Residents should call or write in to inform us of any such violation, providing all necessary details," he said. "We will carry out the necessary investigation. To date, there has not been any documentation yet."

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator