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Originally published May 12, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 14, 2013 at 2:51 PM

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Car2Go a handy option, but it doesn’t come cheap

It’s not often that the physical manifestation of an app or Web service appears on the curb in front of your house. But that’s how I look at the funny little Car2Go vehicles that have appeared on the streets of Seattle, a service that I’ve been testing for several months.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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It’s not often that the physical manifestation of an app or Web service appears on the curb in front of your house.

But that’s how I look at the hundreds of funny little Car2Go vehicles that have appeared on the streets of Seattle like a swarm of blue and white ladybugs.

The service — which began in Germany in 2009 and in Seattle in December — scatters a fleet of cars on the road, then lets people rent them by the minute.

Car2Go requires a $35 registration fee. It collects credit-card details and then mails an access card.

Cars can be found and reserved using a smartphone or browser. Rentals are activated by waving the access card over a sensor on the windshield. That unlocks the door and starts the rental period.

Keys are inside, along with a credit card to refuel if necessary. Gas and parking — even at meters throughout Seattle — are included in the 38 cents per minute rental price. Hourly rentals are $14 and daily rentals are $73.

I’ve been testing the service for several months, mostly using free minutes that the company was giving away at a Seattle Center event in March.

Overall it’s been a handy addition to the mix of transportation options I use. I’m glad to have the service available, especially for one-way trips downtown.

It’s also fun to “find” a car on the street, take it for a spin and just leave it somewhere else in town. This is almost like a real-life version of the “Grand Theft Auto” video games, especially if you drive like crazy to minimize your per-minute charge.

I don’t buy the eco rhetoric about car-sharing services, but there’s no doubt we’ll see more traditional services such as auto rentals migrate to on-demand systems like Car2Go uses. It blends first-rate mobile apps with location services, in-vehicle displays, wireless infrastructure and reservation software, enabling 18,000 users to easily share and find 430 cars spread across 52 square miles of the city.

But Car2Go rentals ended up costing more than I expected — much more than a bus ride — and availability isn’t predictable enough to count on the service for important appointments. The cars always seem to be scarce when I need one the most, and you can reserve one only 30 minutes in advance.

I’m also concerned about the sweetheart deal Car2Go received from the city of Seattle. The city is shafting residents and businesses with aggressive parking charges and sanctimonious transportation schemes, while letting Car2Go use public-parking spaces for next to nothing.

The company is paying $1,330 per car per year for unlimited parking throughout the city, even at metered spots. A metered spot downtown might otherwise cost $10,000 per year, and private garages may charge $2,400 or more per year.

Under terms of its agreement with the city, the company is required to provide an annual report detailing how much its cars used metered parking, based on GPS data, and pay more if they use more than $1,030 worth of metered parking. Still, the cars are exempt from some general parking restrictions. City ordinance says they can use “time-limited parking spaces or stalls without regard to the posted time.”

Car2Go’s fee includes $300 per year enabling its cars to park in non-metered, restricted areas, such as zones where parking is scarce and limited to residents, or near Husky Stadium on game days.

Car2Go cars aren’t continuously parked, though near my office in South Lake Union they seem to arrive in the morning and stay put until the evening commute, using up many of the scarce parking spots.

If Car2Go’s current Seattle fleet were all parked at once in metered spots, it would take up 3.4 percent of the city’s on-street, paid parking.

Car2Go is one of several short-term car rental outfits that call themselves “car sharing” services and use online services to expedite reservations. They’ve positioned themselves as environmentally friendly because they offer new options to people who use multiple modes of transportation, potentially reducing car ownership.

The concept was pioneered in Seattle by Flexcar, which in 2000 began providing hourly rentals to customers who bought yearly memberships. Flexcar merged in 2007 with rival Zipcar, which was sold earlier this year to rental giant Avis Budget Group.

Lately there’s a wave of startups offering car services via apps. Some, such as Uber and Flywheel, provide towncars and taxis on call. Others, such as Lyft and Zimride, are apps that let people rent out their personal cars or give rides in return for a “donation.”

Car2Go feels like a startup, with its modern software interface, smart use of mobile devices and groovy vibe. But it’s owned by Daimler, the huge German conglomerate that makes everything from Freightliner semis to the minuscule two-seat Smart cars used by Car2Go. Daimler is expanding Car2Go around the world; it’s now in seven countries and 17 cities.

The cars are too small to haul much more than two people, and the pause when you first press the accelerator is a little disconcerting. But they’re maneuverable and easy to park.

Cars that I used were clean, and so far every one has had the radio tuned to KEXP.

I found only two glitchy cars. One had trouble connecting wirelessly to the reservation system, making it difficult to unlock and commence the rental.

Another had to be rebooted, literally. A customer-service rep talked me through the process on the phone. You press and hold a button on the navigation/reservation system on the dashboard. Then I was booted out because I lost my reservation when the software was reset. No other cars were available nearby so I took a bus home.

Several times I flubbed the login process, forgetting to tap my card on the windshield when I left the car, or tapping too many times when I started, resulting in charges for “trips” when the car was stationary.

The bus remains a far more reliable and affordable way to get around Seattle without a car.

Using Car2Go to and from work, trips of two to three miles ranged from $4.45 to $8.02, each way, including taxes. The same trip on a bus would cost $2.50. Either option usually requires a walk of several blocks to reach a vehicle.

My commute usually takes about 10 minutes. Most people in Seattle have longer ones; their mean travel time to work is 25 minutes, according to census data. Using Car2Go to commute, they’d spend $9.50 each way.

The idea isn’t to use Car2Go for your daily drive, though. It’s on-demand transportation that’s particularly handy for people making short trips, particularly those who want another way to get around close-in neighborhoods.

Car2Go is far from a solution to Seattle’s troubling transportation challenges, and it’s not clear that it deserves a significant subsidy in the form of discounted use of public property.

But it’s a fun and impressive blend of online and offline services, and a convenient amenity for those who can afford it.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

An earlier version of this column has been updated to include more detailed information on Car2Go’s agreement with the city of Seattle on parking fees.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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