HourCar, a non-profit car share based in St. Paul, has seen it all since 2005. It’s seen other national car-sharing companies drop into the market for a few years, fumble through their operations in upper Midwest conditions (think 30 cars getting towed during just one 2016 snowstorm), and leave.
In 2021, HourCar will launch a new program in the Twin Cities: one-way electric car sharing fueled by 100% renewable energy.
“Instead of Car2Go, we want to create ‘car to stay’,” HourCar’s CEO Paul Schroeder says of the organization’s enduring commitment to the local community. “We are working to create a community-supported model that can be durable and lasting, that doesn’t yank the rug out from under people after they come to rely on it, after they’ve maybe sold a car or make other adjustments in their life based on an access option that is now gone,” as happened when Car2Go left the Twin Cities in 2016.
HourCar says that its one-way carsharing service will not only represent the first 100% renewable car-sharing system in the Western hemisphere, but Schroeder and partners — including the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul — have plans to make it equitable, too.
For Schroeder, goals like these are inseparable from his organization’s mission. “Broadly speaking, we have had a focus on providing transportation services to folks who have less access to those services than they would like,” he says. HourCar’s current service, which requires dropping cars off in the same place they’re picked up, is concentrated in areas of concentrated poverty where 50 percent of residents or more are people of color.
HourCar’s current 50-car fleet is made up of a mix of traditional combustion engines and hybrids. They see between three to four trips per car each day, most often used for running errands. While Zipcar is technically HourCar’s competitor, they tend to serve different areas so Schroeder says that they don’t truly compete much.
“We’re the only car sharing company that has cars on [Minneapolis’] Lake street and [St. Paul’s] Frogtown and along Midway,” Schroeder says, comparing his company to Zipcar, the only other car sharing company in the Twin Cities. “At all of these locations, our rates are 30 percent lower than our usual rate, through our Increased Access Hubs program.” The same ethos will carry over into the one-way electric vehicle project.
Financed with grants from the local Metropolitan Council, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Xcel Energy, the project is on track to launch with 50 cars and roughly 25 charging stations in July of 2021. Fifty more cars will launch later next year and 50 more will be added in 2022 with all charging hubs fully completed by Spring 2022.
All of the cars will be municipally owned and controlled with HourCar acting as the service providers.
HourCar’s electric program will use a semi-free floating model, which means that there will be incentives for drivers to park the cars at one of its 70 charging hubs when they’re done using them, but it won’t be a requirement.
The hubs will include four dedicated parking spaces, two that are open to privately owned electric cars and two reserved for HourCar vehicles. Since Minneapolis currently has about 150 charging stations open to the public, adding 70 represents a significant increase to the city’s electric infrastructure. The hubs will charge a car overnight, for the most part, but there will be speedier 1-hour charging points available at some hubs as well. The cities that technically own the cars will guarantee that the hubs use renewable energy through the purchase of renewable energy certificates, which require utility Xcel Energy to generate or purchase an equivalent amount of energy from green sources, which in Minnesota are mainly wind and solar.
Half the charging hubs will be in high-poverty locations.
“Hubs will be… along the light rails’ Green Line and additional neighborhoods, locations with a high density of residents and locations that are near commercial corridors and mixed-use areas where there also tend to be transit options, so it complements transportation options already available,” says Russ Stark, St. Paul’s Chief Resilience Officer.
Stark describes the project as a massive undertaking, but one that has plenty of potential. “We recognize that car sharing has not necessarily served our low-income communities well in the past,” he says. “We’ll really see the success or failure of this [one-way] effort on how well it’s used overall, but equally how well it provides a good mobility option for lower income residents. That’s one of the metrics we’re tracking.”
Schroeder also sees the user experience as a major factor. “People have a level of expectation of what the experience should be like based on Uber and Lyft and Postmates — these kinds of app-based products should be easy to use, intuitive, simple to sign up. Until very recently, HourCar honestly has not been many of those things,” he says, adding that HourCar users have had to make reservations via a website rather than an app. The company will roll out its first app in February.
For Schroeder, electric transportation is the “direction of the future” and he anticipates that HourCar will be moving toward all-electric across the board from this point on. “We think that what we’re doing as a model is of great interest to cities all over the U.S. and probably abroad,” he says.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.