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July 5th, 2006 Josh Silverman | Q & A
 

Bill Scott

WW asks Flexcar's exec if the end of a city subsidy puts Portland carsharing in reverse.

     
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Bill Scott
Bill Scott, Flexcar's director of operations in Portland, is ticked off.

He's mad because the City Council unanimously voted last month to impose a new charge on Scott's carsharing company. For the first time, Flexcar will be charged for revenues the city loses by letting the private company park its vehicles for free in metered public spaces.

Flexcar parks its cars throughout the city, often by public transportation stops, then rents them to members who pay $40 annually and up to $9 per hour for actual usage. Customers reserve cars online and gain access to vehicles at their reserved time by using a personalized "Smartcard."

The city calculates it loses up to $70,000 a year from this arrangement, by which about 30 percent of Flexcar spaces are located in metered spots. But Scott says that's a small price, given that a 2005 report by Portland's Department of Transportation concluded Flexcar receives a "relatively modest subsidy" yet "produces measurable public and environmental" benefits.

But supporters of the new city charge say cash-strapped PDOT can't continue losing parking revenue to a company that's about to turn profitable. So WW asked Scott to come in and explain why he thinks Flexcar is getting shafted.

WW: Why should taxpayers be subsidizing what's essentially a private car rental company?

Bill Scott: The reason for them doing it is not to benefit a company but to benefit the citizens. And they should be focused on what's the public benefit. The research shows that we take 15 cars off the street for every car we deploy. That's what's at stake here—how rapidly we can achieve those benefits. What we've proven now is that it works, that it is a viable business, and produces really tangible benefits that were previously speculative and theoretical. But it's still baby steps; it's not really at a scale that it's making a big difference in how good a place the city is to live and do business in. So the question is, how fast do you want to get there?

In most other cities, carsharing fleets park primarily off-street. Why not do that here?

Well, we could emulate those cities. We certainly haven't argued that we're going to go out of business with off-street parking. But providing on-street parking is simply a way for the Portland city government to expand the benefits of carsharing faster. It's not a matter of life or death. We will probably increase the proportion of off-street parking, we may give up some of the particularly expensive on-street spaces, and then we'll probably charge a premium for remaining on-street parking. Unfortunately, almost all of those Flexcars next to streetcar stops are metered spaces. That was a strategy jointly planned with the city. But we may have to cut back some of those because they are on the block faces with the highest meter revenue.

Can Flexcar survive under the new rules?

It's obviously a setback. This fee represents between 5 and 10 percent of today's revenue. It will definitely slow us down in terms of our ability to add cars and to grow the service in Portland. They estimate that they lose $60,000 to $70,000 a year, which we think is maybe exaggerated. So our next step is to dig into those calculations and discuss with the city whether the full cost is really that high.

What's this do to the future of carsharing in Portland?

You know, I had an email from a guy I know at Zipcar [a competing carsharing company] saying, "Hey, what is this? I thought Portland was such a progressive place!" [laughs] Obviously, it discourages anybody who is thinking of coming in. I think carsharing has a bright future in Portland; it's just not as bright as I think people hoped it would be.

By the way, how did you get here today?

I drove a Flexcar. We use them just like anyone else does.


Flexcar has 122 spaces throughout Portland and about 6,000 members in the city, including WW.

Before joining Flexcar in 2002, Scott was director of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.

 
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