Sunday’s Post had an article about how Fairfax county is looking into the possibility of CityCars — little two seater electric cars that could be used for short hops, say between your house and a metro station (they only go 10 miles between charges).  They don’t exist yet, but the concept is very neat — they stack together like grocery carts, so you can fit six of them in the space that it takes to park one regular car.  (See the third picture from the left here.  Aren’t they cute?)

The Post article mostly discusses the safety issues of mixing CityCars with either pedestrians or cars.  I think that a lot depends on how fast they go — if their maximum speed is, say, 30 miles per hour, that’s too slow to be safe on the roadways, too slow to be safe on the sidewalks.

But I’m more interested in the logistics of how they’d be rented  The idea is that individuals would not own CityCars but they’d be stored at metro stops and other central locations, essentially like car rental programs (e.g. ZipCar and FlexCar).   I think that’s because the nested parking only makes sense if each person takes the frontmost car, rather than having to shuffle them all around to get at your personal car.

The Post article suggests that you could pick them up at the airport, then return them the next day.  But that doesn’t make sense to me, since someone would have to follow you back to the airport to give you a ride home.  (Similarly, while I have a FlexCar membership, I can’t use it to borrow a car to come home from the metro, since you have to return it to the same place where you picked it up.)

CityCars seem to make a lot more sense for daily commuters, assuming that it wasn’t prohibitively expensive to keep them overnight.  I’d certainly be happy to take a CityCar to the metro, especially if there were guaranteed parking for them.  And given that the parking lots at metro stations fill up by 8 am or earlier, it seems like a lot of other people would be interested.  And they’d also work for people who work at surburban locations that are just a bit too far from public transportation to walk, which would help inner city residents who don’t own cars.

But you’d have to have enough of them that everyone who wanted one could be confident of getting one, because it wouldn’t take getting stranded a whole lot of times to make people give up on the program.   And the smaller the program, the higher the percentage of "excess" cars you’d need to ensure that you didn’t run out.

16 Responses to “CityCars”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Not the same thing, but where I live, there is a car share scheme ( which is effectively rental by the hour of a small car parked locally. It works best in a mixed use area (residential and business) as the businesses use it during working hours and the residents outside.
    I’m not sure how good they would be for commuting, though, unless the businesses near the metro stop could use it during the day. Otherwise it would just sit there unused during business hours.
    It would have been good for me pre children when I used to commute by public transport and only needed a car once a week to do the grocery shopping. And it’s advertised here as useful as an occasional second car.

  2. bj Says:

    flexcar is like your “” here in the USA; a bunch of major cities have them. In our case, the presumed usage is 1) for people who normally commute (for example to the university) via bus/bicycle but find that they need to go home some other way on a particular day (have to work late, pick up someone, go grocery shopping, etc.). Then, the solution of how you bring the car back is that you just bring it back the next day and take your normal commuting option back home.
    I’m not sure how the citicar you describe would be used for commuting. If you need to have a one/one ratio of people to cars, then, what it’s providing is a special parking spot, not a “shared” car option. Otherwise, for commuting, one would have to rely on commuting schedules being less overlapping than they seem to be (so different people could use them at different times) or on the occasional use option (you usually walk/get picked up/take a bus) from the metro, but this day you can’t for some reason.
    I think that we need to have significant changes in our relationship with cars (and the flexibility that comes with them) before these alternative commuting options become really viable. Right now, too many of the car driving options are sunk costs that are difficult to change (where one lives, buying the car itself, the insurance, even having already filled your tank with gas). So, each incremental trip seems to have no cost (parking is the biggest one people actually seem to consider, since the gas doesn’t feel like an incremental cost, because your tank is already full). I think we need to do more to make people responsible for the incremental costs of car usage, so that they will variably choose among different possible options.
    I think the option of not having a car at all is not viable in most places in the US. So, almost everyone who can will have a car. When you have a car, the easiest next option is often to drive. So, we need to figure out ways to make that not the easiest option after the sunk costs.

  3. Mieke Says:

    There are more and more of those little electric cars popping up here in Santa Monica. They are owned by the people who drive them. They make a ton of sense for the quick run to the store, the beach, to drop the kids off at a friend’s. I love them, but I always worry about the cell phone talking redlight running fool in the Escalade that will squish them like bugs. I’d need to be in a much smaller town to feel comfortable using them, but I do love the idea.

  4. Christine Says:

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to expand bus routes to pick up 20-40 people rather than have a multitude of small cars with seats for only 2 people? When I commuted into NYC I walked to the bus then took the subway. One of the problems on Long Island is that there are so few bus lines and the one that exist are not reliable. It would be great to have less cars driving to the LIRR. The parking lots are packed right now. Realistically, who would want to drive something so small behind a Hummer? My prius is small, but I wouldn’t feel safe driving something so small in the sea of SUVs and trucks.

  5. jen Says:

    I second what Christine’s saying. Why are we not talking about improving bus routes, or putting in streetcars, or otherwise improving transit? If it’s a problem getting from your light rail stop to your house, we need non-car options.
    One of the smartest things Mayor Daley has done in Chicago is to put in a bike station downtown that provides secure indoor parking for your bike, and showers. It makes it possible to get your morning ride in and still go to work presentable.
    And BJ’s exactly right — we need pay at the pump taxes/registration/insurance. Make it noticeably cheaper for people if they skip the quick car trip. That will open some eyes.

  6. bj Says:

    I actually want meters in cars :-). I keep saying that to everyone hoping someone will actually make it happen. I think technology prevented that kind of option in the past. But, it’s totally feasible now: A meter in your car, monitoring your # of miles, w/ a $’s attached to the mile, just like in a cab. Then, at the end of the month, you pay those dollars to the government. There might be privacy concerns that have to be addressed (especially if one adds congestion pricing based on which roads you are driving on during different times), but it’s technologically feasible, and it would force people to recognize that every driving decision has a cost.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    I’ve said here before that I like the idea of pay at the pump insurance, to make more of the costs of owning a car variable. And I happen to be driving my MIL’s hybrid Escape this week, and I think having the constant display of my current MPGs does make me less likely to race the yellow lights…
    It’s very hard to build suburban bus lines that people who can afford to drive will choose to use. I’ve tried taking the bus from the metro, and I’d rather walk the 4 miles. It’s a long slow ride, but more importantly, the line that goes near my house only runs every 30 minutes. So I need to leave a significant margin for train delays in order to avoid the risk of missing it, and it winds up taking me 2 hours to get home. And I’m someone who doesn’t mind the 1/2 mile walk to the bus stop. I’d say the average driver won’t walk more than a block for public transit.

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    Oh, and I still think Flexcar is too expensive for keeping it overnight and bringing it back the next day — here in DC, it’s at least $55 for an overnight. The users of Flexcar that I see are:
    * People who live downtown and only need a car occasionally to run errands to suburban big box stores.
    * Families who have a car, but sometimes need a second one.

  9. Alison Says:

    Fascinating, but totally useless in my life. I have three kids, and I live outside a small city where there is very little public transportation.
    But in general, what about families? What about the mom with her two or three kids getting to the doctor’s office or dropping kids at daycare? Maybe they’ll have a few bigger ones?
    I have a vague memory of hearing that way back when Washington DC was planning their Metro system they considered having “pods” rather than trains. I think they would seat four, and you could program your destination. Did I make that up, or has anyone else heard of that?

  10. mc milker Says:

    Commenting on Mieke’s comment. We have those little electric cars here in Long Beach too. They seem mostly to be driven by elderly folks to zip around to restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Is that because they’ve lost their licenses?
    Now to Elizabeth… What exactly then are the licensing requirements to rent a CityCar? How do they check? Could pre-teens hop into them in the evening and joy ride around the streets? Every answer has a headache attached….

  11. jen Says:

    Alison, I remember hearing something like what you’re describing being proposed in Minneapolis, too. It looked like a caterpillar, almost, with a long series of little pods moving on rails at the same speed, but individual “pods” pulling off at different destinations. This would have been in the late 80s maybe?

  12. Mieke Says:

    The little cars buzzing around Santa Monica carry four to five people. They have seatbelts and I’ve seen car seats strapped in as well. They require the same licensing as regular cars – I think. They are known as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles – you can google them for more information – they make a lot of sense but you’d have to have rules that these are the only cars allowed. You just would not survive an impact with a normal car –even a small Prius. For that reason I couldn’t do it, but if I lived in a place that allowed only these vehicles I’d jump on it in a second, but that’s just not realistic.
    Click on the link for picture:

  13. Christine Says:

    Allison, I don’t see how these cars would accomodate families. I am not crazy about SUVs, but if you need to have two or three infant or booster seats these small cars not ideal. But, I thought the cars were for commuters.

  14. dave.s. Says:

    For commuters, I think you have the same problem as with ‘regular’ cars: a place to park them at the worksite. If they are smaller, the space required is less, but you still have a need for transport in one direction in the morning and the opposite direction at night. Scooter type cars can be useful (if electric, or flywheel, or compressed air) for short errands returning to the garage for re-charging – take the kids to school in the morning, go to the supermarket, etc. DC and the Virginia commuter counties near 95 have facilitated hitchhiking commuters (the ‘slug line’) for people going back and forth to work, and this has gotten a LOT of vehicles off the road – works in large part because, if driving, you have rights to the HOV lane if you have passengers.
    Mexico City long had a really successful program of allowing taxis to put up a placard for a particular route, and they could be hailed for a fixed fare by passengers along that route. The driver would usually have three to five passengers, it was somewhat faster than regular buses because they stopped only when hailed or discharging a passenger. San Francisco had something somewhat like that thirty years ago and the bus drivers’ union really hated it, I think they managed to kill it.
    Right now, everyone is still individually better off getting into the Camry and driving off to do errands. This will change a lot as gasoline goes from $3 gallon to $9 gallon, and I think it’s pretty likely we will see that magnitude price increase in the next five or ten years (as we in the USA compete for gasoline with newly prosperous middle-class people with cars in India and Brazil and China). It’s going to be painful.

  15. dave.s. Says:

    If Metro wanted to fix your particular problem, the best way to do it seems to me to privilege cars with three or more passengers at their parking lots. Then you’d have the equivalent of the I95 slug lines spring up in the neighborhoods a few miles out from Dunn Loring, etc.
    I’m not sure they would want to do it, though, because the Orange Line is running pretty much at capacity at commute hours now – I know this as one who tries to squeeze in at an Arlington stop….

  16. dave.s. Says:

    lots of highly cute pix of little dream cars here:

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