An Ithaca Success Story: Inside the phenomenal growth of Ithaca Carshare, Inc. 

The Ithaca Voice, August 22, 2014 - Michael J. Connor

Q: How’s that Ithaca Carshare thing working out so far?

A: It’s picking up speed.

​Ithaca Carshare, Inc. started its engines six years ago with a hefty grant from a state energy authority. Now, it seems to have hit cruising speed and is able to run on its own operating revenues.

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(Michael J. Connor/Ithaca Voice)

​What is Ithaca Carshare and how and why does it seem to be humming along? 

Here are a few answers to those and related questions:

​1 — What is Ithaca Carshare, Inc.?

​​It is a non-profit organization that provides cars and a few other vehicles for a fee to people who don’t want the cost or bother of owning one but occasionally or even frequently need one. It was formed in 2006 and launched in 2008, once it obtained necessary insurance.

​2 — How big is its fleet?

​​Carshare owns 22 cars, a pickup and a minivan. You can see them around town with the distinctive green logo made up of three compact cars whirling in a fan shape.

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(Michael J. Connor/Ithaca Voice)

​3 — How does it work?

​​You pay a monthly membership fee — adjusted based on whether you’re a light or heavy user — plus hourly rates, also tailored to frequency of use. If you just want to be able to access one of the cars a few times a month, say, you’d pay $6 each month for membership and just under $8 per hour while you’re using the car. Higher usage equals higher monthly membership and lower hourly rate. Much more info is available at IthacaCarshare.org.

​4 — Is participation growing?

​Yes. It has about 1,500 members now, according to executive director Jennifer Dotson. Roughly a third are college students, a third faculty and staff, a third non-university or college community residents.

​5 — Is it dependent on government subsidies to stay on the road?

​​It was at the start; no longer. It has enjoyed such robust growth in income from user fees that, as Dotson said, “We are supporting both operating and capital budgets with our revenue.” In other words, Carshare is able to replace aging and weary vehicles routinely — usually about every five years — and pay for them from its operating income.

​​Here are some key figures culled from the organization’s 990 income tax forms on file with the IRS …. ​Ithaca Carshare depends less on gifts, grants, contributions and other sources of revenue…

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…while its income from usage, application and membership fees & penalties has grown steadily:

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​6 — Why does Ithaca seem like a hospitable place for this kind of service?

​​This is Ithaca. You really have to ask?

​​Well, this community is already predisposed to use alternatives to car ownership in getting around. Public transit use is heavy compared to many other communities. Bicycling is ubiquitous.

​​And then there’s this: Of all small, medium and large cities in the U.S., Ithaca has the highest percentage of people who walk to work — 42.4 percent, according to data released in May by the U.S. Census Bureau. For comparison, Boston has the highest percentage of walking commuters among large cities — at 15.1 percent. Many people here are accustomed to getting around without cars.

​​Ithaca walks the talk. Literally. ​

​7 — Are there any complaints about the program?

​​Some people don’t like the rates. “Eight dollars an hour, wow, that’s really expensive” is a theme Dotson has heard. She said rates were set to make sure Carshare could maintain a reliable fleet and operate without needing subsidies. Some tweaking of the rate structure is possible, she allowed.

​​Some people don’t like losing on-street parking spaces in their neighborhoods. Some don’t like the free ride that Carshare gets to park at those spaces.

​​“We do get dedicated parking spaces on the street, and as a local non-profit, we do not pay for them,” she said.

The same statutes that dedicate bus stops and taxi stands apply here, because these are deemed public transit. Theoretically, any carshare program could use those spaces. At the moment, there is only Ithaca Carshare. Carshare staff provide signage and shovel snow in the winter. But Dotson said she can see a case for paying for the spaces.

​8 — Does carsharing have a future?

​​A number of studies reveal a declining interest in owning cars among young people, even a declining interest in driving. Some of this is driven by economics — they’d rather spend scarce resources on other things — but some seems to be a deeper shift.

​​Matthew DeBord, who writes about cars for Huffington Post, noted the global trend called “demotorizing.” He said a recent study in the U.S. “revealed that the percentage of new cars sold to 21-34 year-olds had fallen to 27 percent, down from 38 percent in the mid-1980s.”

​​DeBord said that “while getting around is great, owning a vehicle is not all that exciting. For people under 30, in fact, it’s an encumbrance. Their lives are increasingly organized around updating their electronic gadgets, communicating with each other in small, ongoing text-bites, curating their various online identities and migrating to complex virtual experiences. Transportation means just getting to where they need to go, period. Cars are fine, but even better in the minds of young people is choosing a place to live that offers abundant transportation options.”

​​A group called Transportation for America (T4America) released similar research results together with The Rockefeller Foundation: “Four in five millennials say they want to live in places where they have a variety of options to get to jobs, school or daily needs, according to a new survey of Americans age 18-34 in 10 major U.S. cities.”

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​​Those findings fit nicely with Dotson’s vision for a “suite” of transportation options in Ithaca— carshare, bicycles, bus, walking and decreased dependence on car ownership. Carshare’s website and flyers note that a typical American household spends about $9,000 a year to own and maintain a car that is parked 95 percent of the time.

​​She said both national and local surveys have consistently shown that each vehicle in a carshare program keeps 15 other vehicles off the road. The economic and environmental benefits multiply.

​​Dotson says the program is working well enough that now, “It’s a really good time to be looking at what’s next.”

​​Bikeshare, anyone?

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