Traverse City one of only three U.S. cities to have car sharing organization

TRAVERSE CITY – It started as a neighborhood thing. Last fall when Bob Otwell and Sharon Flesher got together with a few other neighbors to discuss the possibility of cooperatively purchasing and sharing a car, they had no idea they were on the road to becoming business entrepreneurs.

When their proposal proved unworkable due to liability issues, Otwell decided to do a little research. What he found so inspired him that this past January he and Flesher founded CarSharing Traverse, Inc. of Traverse City, one of the premier car sharing organizations (CSOs) in the United States.

“I’d heard about an organization in Portland,” explained Otwell, “and I thought ‘there has to be a way we can do this in Traverse City.’ So I started doing more research and found out that car sharing is popular all over Europe and in Canada. It’s only been around for about two years here in the States, so it was hard to find someone willing to insure us, but we ended up getting it through our neighbor John Shumsky (of Shumsky West and Associates Inc.) who lives about two doors down.”

What exactly is car sharing? Basically, CSOs provide members with convenient, affordable, and reliable access to a car without the expense and responsibility of ownership. The service is considered ideal for people who don’t need a car for everyday uses, and who drive less than 10,000 miles a year.

Otwell describes typical members as “two-driver families who can get by with one car and an occasional second car. Though in the future I think we’ll be seeing more single people with no access to a car, or people who live in town that can walk or ride a bike to work, but need to have a car available for lunch.”

CarSharing Traverse currently has 13 members who pay a one-time initiation fee of $100, and then may reserve a car for $2 an hour and 50 cents a mile. Reservations may be made for as short as an hour or as long as a day (there is a $55 maximum charge per day). Members simply record their mileage in a trip log located in the vehicle. The charges are billed directly to their credit cards. Though the prices may seem a little steep, an evaluation of CarSharing Portland’s first year of operation showed that its members saved an average of $150 per month in gas, insurance, and service fees.

CSOs originated in Europe about 12 years ago as an environmentally-minded alternative to vehicle ownership. The service works to reduce traffic congestion, pollution, fossil-fuel consumption and infrastructure costs. European memberships now number in the tens of thousands and have spawned imitators throughout Canada.

The idea is just beginning to catch on here in the States with CSOs in the planning stages in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boulder, Colorado. Portland, Seattle, and Traverse City are currently the only U.S. cities with operating CSOs.

“We’re definitely the smallest operation in the country,” laughed Otwell. “But it’s all about making Traverse City a more livable city. I’ve been on the planning commission for about five years now and it’s just amazing how much of our land use is for parking lots.”

Otwell admits that car sharing is a new and foreign idea to many Americans, but he has been encouraged by the amount of interest shown in CarSharing Traverse.

The company began with just one car located in Boardman Neighborhood, but have recently placed another in the 400 block of 9th Street in Traverse City’s Central Neighborhood. The cars (a Volkswagen Passat and a late-model Ford Escort) were donated by Flesher and Otwell to get the business started. They hope to purchase more and varied vehicles, possibly a pick-up truck or station wagon, as soon as possible.

“There’s been a lot of interest,” Otwell said. “A lot of people still don’t understand quite what we’re doing, but it just takes time to make it a part of life. We’re definitely headed in the right direction.” BIZNEWS