Thursday, April 16, 2009

HOURCAR in Uptown

Car-sharing has been in the Twin Cities for nearly five years now, yet there are still people out there who aren’t familiar with the concept. The only place in town – for now, anyway – is locally-based HOURCAR, a company started by the Saint Paul nonprofit Neighborhood Energy Consortium. And while car sharing is a useful resource for any neighborhood, it works especially well in a densely populated, urban neighborhood such as Uptown.

How car-sharing works, in a nutshell: Cars are parked in permanent locations, or “hubs.” You first become a member of HOURCAR. When you need to access a car you simply go online, make a reservation, then walk to your local hub, pick up the car, and go. Members pay monthly for hours, gas, and mileage based on usage.

Where are HOURCAR cars located in Uptown? Core Uptown locations include the YWCA at 29th and Hennepin and 31st and Girard (behind Calhoun Square). Also within walking distance of manyUptowners is the “Wedge Hub,” at 22nd and Garfield.

Cost: There are different plans available, but for the “Freedom” plan you pay just $5 per month in dues. Hourly rentals go for $8 an hour and 25 cents per mile. You can rent the cars by the day or weekend, too.

Hub Sponsorship: HOURCAR is currently soliciting applications from businesses, organizations, or individuals who are interested in their property serving as an HOURCAR hub. Sponsors pay between $12,000 and $15,000, depending on type of vehicle; in return HOURCAR promises to locate the car there for at least two years. The sponsorship will be matched 1:1 by the McKnight Foundation. I don’t know who currently is or has submitted a recent application, but am hoping that the future hubs will better serve some of the residents of the greater Uptown area who don’t live within close distance of the current hubs (although there are vast swaths of the city not currently served by HOURCAR; these people deserve access, too). Eventually maybe we’ll be lucky enough to have these dotted across the Uptown (and city as a whole) landscape, which in turn will give more and more people the opportunity to get rid of their cars as an unnecessary expense. HOURCAR's website specifically cites neighborhood organizations as potential sponsors; I'm not sure if any of the Uptown-area neighborhood organizations (I know the Uptown Association is a supporter) are current or potentially future sponsors, but this is certainly something arguably worthy of neighborhood funds.

What makes a good HOURCAR hub (according to website):

  • Low to moderate income neighborhood
  • High density neighborhood
  • “Strategically positioned to enhance the existing HOURCAR network”
  • Sponsor should be committed to supporting the hub, through marketing, maintenance, or other endeavors

I think car share programs are a great idea, but have a couple of questions and possible concerns about the way HOURCAR works in Minneapolis. First, the existing fleet of 19 cars is pretty small. What happens if someone has rented one of the only few cars in the neighborhood for the entire day or weekend? You can go pick up another one elsewhere, but if that’s the case it won’t be long before the convenience benefit of the program starts to erode. The coming expansion (ten new cars in ten new locations) will help a great deal, and eventually (with luck) there will be enough cars in enough locations that few people will ever be seriously inconvenienced. My second, and biggest, question relates to the cars themselves. HOURCAR is very proud of their energy efficient cars; options include the Toyota Prius and the Toyota Yaris. These are obviously great cars from an environmental standpoint, but do they really serve the needs of HOURSHARE customers? Take a look at this (unscientific survey) of some of the top trips for San Francisco’s City CarShare, one of the models for the Twin Cities’ HOURCAR:

  • Picking up friends or relatives at the airport
  • Dropping off donations at Goodwill
  • Helping friends move
  • First date
  • Meeting a client on the Peninsula (Minneapolis equivalent would be anywhere in the ‘burbs)
  • IKEA visit
  • Grocery store trip

A Toyota Yaris is a four-door sedan. It fits five people and has a spacious trunk. The Toyota Prius is a sedan with a hatchback. It can fit a lot in the back, but is it big enough to handle a trip to IKEA? Maybe, maybe not. I suppose there are always regular rental options, or the traditional cheap U-Haul truck, but it would be nice if HOURCAR could consider expanding its fleet options as it expands its bases. On the other hand, a Prius could well impress a first date, and both of these cars would be fine for a trip to the store or for a jaunt out to Maple Grove.

I’m not (currently) a member of HOURCAR. My transportation options are bus, feet, and the occasional ride from family or friends (too scared to brave city streets with a bike; a weakness, I admit.). In the future, though, should I join the ranks of licensed drivers, I will definitely consider HOURCAR as an option. Programs like this one make it easy for many people to give up their cars. Why go through the hassles and expense of maintaining a car if you mostly use it just to go to the grocery store or run occasional errands? Car shares are an increasingly common part of urban life, and it’s encouraging to see the concept growing in popularity in Minneapolis. With each new location, and perhaps with each new type of car option, it becomes easier and easier to eliminate some of the cars on our streets.

Are you a member of HOURCAR? If not, what’s stopping you? Where would you like to see the next HOURCAR hubs located?


  1. 1. Regarding your point about someone renting the HOURCAR for an entire weekend: This is unlikely, as car-sharing programs like this are very expensive for long-term car rentals. Their best use is in-frequent less-than-a-day trips like all of the examples you mention from SF. If you are renting for an entire weekend, it is far better to rent from a traditional car rental company.

    2. Cars like the Prius are plenty big for a trip to IKEA. I have a 4 door Honda Civic that is significantly smaller than a Prius and have made many successful trips to IKEA for things. (indeed, that is one of the advantages of IKEA, they intentionally pack their furniture into flat packages.)

    3. Using fuel-efficient cars goes beyond pure environmental altruism and makes car-sharing more affordable. Car-sharing clubs include the cost of gas in the rental. You rent for a period of time, and you fill up with the car-sharing club's credit card whenever it is necessary. Therefore, it reduces the cost the club needs to charge to rent the vehicles to have a fuel-efficient car.

  2. I agree with you about the impracticality of renting for the weekend, although HOURCAR does advertise that service. On the other hand, there usually does seem to be an HOURCAR car parked in the Y's lot on Hennepin, so presumably there's not currently a problem with supply versus demand (for either short or long trips).

    I'm glad to hear that the Prius is big enough for a trip to IKEA; back in our car-owning days we sometimes had trouble with the length of IKEA boxes, but then again, that car was not practical for hauling much of anything. As an update, I read recently that HOURCAR is considering adding pickup trucks to the fleet, although not until the cost of the hybrid trucks come down in price.