A proposed car-sharing program covering nine South Bay cities will get a test drive at Tuesday's Torrance City Council meeting.
The panel is seeking public comment on the perceived pros and cons of the program dubbed Car2Go, which uses a fleet of ultra-compact, ecologically friendly smart cars.
Car2Go, which operates in 18 North American and European cities, including San Diego, is seen as an inexpensive, environmentally friendly method of reducing traffic congestion and freeing up parking in densely populated areas.
"We have not been able to uncover any negatives," said Councilwoman Susan Rhilinger, who heads up the council's Transportation Committee and serves as the city's representative to the South Bay Cities Council of Governments, which is championing the program.
"They all seem to love it," she added of the communities where it is already in place. "To me, the only negative to it is the impact it might have with parking on public streets.
"The company wants to be able to have the cars available (to users) on public streets. That's what makes them different from the other companies that run these kinds of businesses. "
Car-sharing programs have boomed since they were launched in Switzerland in 1987, according to the website CarSharing.net.
Today, citing data provided by a University of California, Berkeley researcher, there are 25 U.S. car-sharing programs, including one in Southern California called LAXcarshare, that claim almost 720,000 members who share more than 9,800 vehicles, according to the website.
The concept works best in densely populated areas such as the South Bay, said Jacki Bacharach, executive director of the SBCCOG. The region has 600,000 cars, and that number is increasing by 3,000 a year. Therefore, local governments are seeking strategies to reduce pressure on the road network.
Locally, most people take trips of five miles of less, which models the usage Car2Go generally sees. The average Car2Go trip is 40 minutes, while the cost is a maximum of $13.99 an hour, taxes not included.
It's seen as ideal for families or retired couples who don't want a second car sitting idle in the driveway most of the time, for those who can't afford the expense of owning a car, and for others who don't want the hassle of owning one in densely populated areas, such as Hermosa Beach.
"Car sharing reduces car ownership, reduces vehicle miles traveled and increases walking, bicycling and transit (usage)," said Cheryl Cuck, a spokeswoman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, citing the conclusions of a 2005 Federal Transit Administration-sponsored study titled "Carsharing: How and Why it Succeeds. "
"By offering an affordable alternative to car ownership, people can sell their car (or forgo purchasing one) while still having automobile access," Cuck added. "The study concludes that for every car-sharing vehicle on the road, at least five private vehicles are removed. "
In the South Bay, Car2Go proposes putting a fleet of 300 cars on the road over a 35-square-mile area in the cities of Torrance, Lomita, Lawndale, El Segundo, Gardena, Hawthorne and Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.
Gardena, Lomita and El Segundo have already approved the program, while Torrance could follow suit at its meeting Tuesday.
Officials in Manhattan Beach, who could discuss Car2Go on May 7, expressed several concerns during a fall discussion and decided the idea needed more study and community feedback. The company will need a permit to allow its vehicles to park without time limits or payment of meters.
Among the concerns voiced by City Council members was a fear that vehicles could sit for extended periods of time in spaces that are typically in high demand.
"These will occupy our precious parking supply, making fewer spaces available to others," Mayor David Lesser said at the time. He also questioned how useful a rentable smart car would be to residents with families, or those running several shopping errands.
If the program is successful, the cars should be out and about, not resting in downtown parking spaces, Car2Go's Walter Rosenkranz said in response. "I wouldn't expect all 300 cars to gravitate to downtown. The cars follow their members," he said. "If the members are not gravitating to those areas, then the cars won't. "
To participate, Car2Go.com members unlock a car with their membership cards and drive off. Members find cars via a smartphone app or the Internet; one can be reserved up to 30 minutes ahead of time. Car2Go bills members for their monthly usage.
Car2Go uses the global positioning system to track the cars because one of the main concerns is that cars will bunch up in the same areas.
Vehicles generally are moved by members within 90 minutes, but if they do pool, the company relocates them, Bacharach said.
"If the cars aren't in the right place, they're not going to make any money," she said. "So they want cars where people are and where cars are not causing a problem. "
Car2Go is seeking special dispensation from parking rules. For instance, the company wants parking limits and fees waived for members in areas where parking is limited to a maximum of two hours, and will then reimburse cities for lost revenue (if they have parking meters, which Torrance, for instance, does not).
In Portland, the company pays a "meter fee recovery" of $1,011 annually per vehicle, Kuck said.
It also wants the ability to have fees waived in neighborhoods that require residents to get a permit to park on the street. That will encourage participation in the program in those areas, freeing up scarce parking spaces as residents give up their cars, studies have shown.
Portland assesses the company an additional annual per car fee of $300 to do so.
"We believe it offers an affordable alternative to car ownership, while still giving people access to an automobile when they need it," Cuck said. "We're interested in anything that reduces vehicle emissions and household travel costs. "
The program has proven so popular in Seattle, where more than 18,000 people have signed up, that the City Council recently approved adding another 150 cars to the current 350-car fleet and expanding it to new neighborhoods.
Bacharach believes the program will meet with similar success here - if it receives the pending approval of each participating city, a bureaucratic process proving to be quite time-consuming.
"We're going to be the only place in the world that I have seen that has car sharing in more than one city," she said. "This is a noble experiment and Car2Go deserves a lot of credit to jump through all these hoops. "
Torrance City Council meetingWhat: The Torrance City Council will discuss Car2Go, a car-sharing program proposed in nine South Bay cities
Where: City Hall, 3031 Torrance Blvd.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Staff writers Kristin S. Agostoni and Carley Dryden contributed to this article.