Los Angeles Carsharing Program For Low-Income Neighborhoods

A Los Angeles carsharing program will target low-income neighborhoods. The program will begin with 100 new cars, 80 of them electric. It will also install charging stations to support the carsharing plan, which is funded by a $1.6 million dollar grant from the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

Car sharing program gaining popularity

Studies by the Shared Use Mobility Center (SUMC) in Chicago show that one shared car can replace as many as 70 conventional cars in urban environments. That means the LA carsharing program may remove as up to 7,000 old, high-emissions cars from the city’s streets. Cars also have a disproportionate impact on the finances of low-income families. Eliminating car payments, fuel costs, and expenses for insurance and maintenance can leave such families with far more disposable income.

Sharon Feigon, executive director of SUMC, says it is possible “to live well without owning a car.” She has more than a decade of experience setting up and running carsharing services in cities around the country. She says introducing an affordable carsharing program in a disadvantaged neighborhood is like opening a grocery store in a food desert: It taps into underserved demand.

“Our experience is doing something like this can work really well,” says Feigon. “Take really good electric cars and make them affordable and accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money for transportation—of course that can work.”

According to The National Journal, California Senate president pro tem Kevin de León, who represents LA,has nothing but praise for policies that “democratize” climate-change progress. “All individuals deserve access to electrical vehicles,” he said in a speech on June 24.

Community groups will play a key role in shaping the on-the-ground details of the carsharing program because local knowledge will be vital to the program’s success. Unlike wealthier neighborhoods where carsharing already thrives, the new program operator (who has not been chosen yet) cannot assume that everyone in the target area has a bank account, a cell phone, or an internet connection.

That’s quite different from the typical carsharing system where users sign up online, then locate and book cars on their phones. The new program might need to include a multi-lingual call center to help people reserve cars.

Grassroots participation can be attractive to carsharing companies because it helps them ease into a new market, says Feigon. “Part of what I think makes it interesting to the operators is that these community groups will be involved, so they’ll have support,” she says. “From the company’s point of view, it’s all about utilization: if the cars are used in the right numbers, then it works for these companies.”

In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal has blasted state policies in California, Oregon and Washington that allow utilities to install chargers in upscale neighborhoods but include the costs in their rate base so all customers are forced to pay for them. The LA carsharing program should at least meet that objection, since the new charging infrastructure will be installed exclusively in low-income neighborhoods.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.