Commentary: Lessons from Carsharing

HourCar Yaris #16 North Loop 2
Photo by Randy Stern

One could learn a lot from a car.

A car might not be able to talk – despite some experiments by Nissan and Chrysler in the 1980s. If it did, it would divulge some secrets through the dialogue between driver and the car's soul. It would show an owner how to maintain it, properly fuel it – even clean and care for it.

You enter into a relationship with a vehicle as soon as you complete the pre-delivery check. Despite some averages, one would hope that the term of the relationship has some good memories along the way. Those memories alone frame a complete comprehension of the car itself.

But, could one learn about a car from the experience of carsharing?

To delve further into the subject, carsharing is a collective form of vehicle usage. It is part car ownership and car rental. The service provides certain perks, such as inclusive comprehensive insurance, a fuel card and private access to the vehicle. However, you share said vehicle with a number of subscribers to the service. In many cases, the vehicle nearest you is not the only one you have access to.

The idea of carsharing piqued my interest upon the announcement of HOURCAR, the primary carsharing service here in the Twin Cities. As an offshoot of the Neighborhood Energy Coalition, a non-profit organization facilitating sustainable and efficient living at home, HOURCAR was formed as inspired by what other metropolitan areas have done. What makes HOURCAR different is the emphasis on being local and connected to public transport and densely populated communities with a historic sustainable bent.

HOURCAR also follows the rule of positioning vehicles in downtown locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Not only do individuals have access to their vehicles; there are corporate accounts where employees have access to the fleet to conduct business in.

I joined HOURCAR in 2007, just about a couple of years after they started providing vehicles in the Twin Cities. As a non-automobile owner, this was a good alternative to using Metro Transit, the public transportation system in this area. A close friend also joined as we shared the exact idea HOURCAR intentioned for this community. I began exploring HOURCAR to do errands that required more than a bus ride. Shopping was the main reason for these rentals. I began to use some of the hubs near where I used to live in the southeastern part of Minneapolis – despite being a bus or train ride away.

After I moved into my current home, I found HOURCAR to be convenient to my transit commute. Along the bus line that I normally take to downtown Minneapolis, a hub opened up just a block from the bus stop in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was at the back parking lot of a neighborhood bank that fronted Washington Avenue. In its designated spot was a white 2007 Toyota Yaris three-door liftback.

The Yaris was indeed worth the transfer off of the bus. It provided service to stops not serviced by Metro Transit on days when service did not exist at my destination. When I needed groceries that were too much to handle in either the heat or cold, the Yaris was there to pick them up. It even played tour guide for an out-of-town friend on a holiday weekend.

There was more about the Yaris than just being an extension of public transportation. This particular car framed an automotive benchmark in its class. That was until the class grew and actually got better. No, the Yaris was not a perfect subcompact, but it certainly grew on me. Things were a bit cheap, but Toyota knew how to screw things together back then. There was plenty of room to roam and quite peppy under the hood. The Yaris was rather uncomplicated, though the center mounted instrumentation binnacle was forgiven. Best of all, it was not tainted with any of the recalls that rocked the company in the recent past.

I knew I was not the only user of the white 2007 Yaris. However, it seemed that not many people used it at the North Loop hub. If it was used, I had to make sure nothing was wrong. One trip, I was inspecting the car before it left and I noticed that the front bumper skin was dislodged. In today's vehicles, a bumper is not longer just a part in itself – it could encompass the grille and lower headlamp assembly. There had been some scratches, but not enough to cause alarm.

Yet, using the Yaris struck a delicate balance between a normal rental car and owning it. Carsharing is akin to car ownership in many cases, especially when your fees go to the insurance, fuel and other necessities to keep each vehicle in the fleet going. Still, there is a sense of temporary transportation and the subsequent abuse that goes along with it.

One lesson to parse out from the experience with the HOURCAR Yaris is one of common sense. Consider this: When you operate a vehicle that is not yours – treat it as it was yours. Take good care of it, regardless if it was a rental car, a carsharing vehicle…even a family member's car. Responsibility comes in huge quantities when you are presented with something you are invested in.

Currently, I am not a member of HOURCAR. I left them a few years ago. The experience of using their service help framed the work I do today. You could thank the white 2007 Toyota Yaris three-door liftback sitting at the back of Franklin Bank on Washington and Sixth Avenues North for the perspectives on this site. Driving that little extension of the transportation matrix of the Twin Cities fed a hungry aspiring automotive writer.

If only that Yaris could talk, what tales it would speak of…

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