CITY HALL — Embracing public transit doesn’t necessarily mean renouncing driving — it may just mean learning how to share.
Such is the hope at City Hall, where officials are aiming to reduce traffic congestion in Santa Monica by striking a deal with a so-called “carsharing” company that rents out vehicles by the hour.
By attracting one of these companies to town, officials say, people who only occasionally need to drive would be more likely to go car-less, and families with two cars would be tempted to get rid of one, using the bus or train for more of their transportation needs.
City Hall’s transportation demand program manager, Annette Colfax, said bringing a carsharing company to Santa Monica is a high priority and was one of the first projects she began working on after starting her job last March.
Carsharing has become commonplace in cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Washington D.C., but so far hasn’t taken off in car-obsessed Los Angeles.
As a relatively dense city with many mixed-use buildings, though, Colfax said Santa Monica is among the more natural places for a carsharing program in the region.
“People might not perceive Santa Monica that way but Santa Monica really has a lot of the characteristics of places where car sharing works,” she said.
She plans to ask carsharing companies to submit their proposals to partner with City Hall in the next several months and said she hopes to ask the City Council to approve a carsharing program by August.
Exactly what City Hall will have to offer to attract a carsharing company, and how ambitious that company’s investment in Santa Monica would be, still remain to be seen.
Colfax said she doesn’t expect to recommend subsidizing a carsharing program directly, but said City Hall would likely have to provide incentives. Ideas on the table, she said, include allocating City Hall staff to promote the program and enforce its rules, and removing some parking meters and devoting those spaces exclusively to shared cars. City Hall could also agree to use the carsharing program to reduce the number of cars in its fleet.
Colfax said most carsharing companies are cautious about entering new markets and would require incentives in order to risk a roll-out in Santa Monica.
One company, Flexcar, used to have a fleet in Santa Monica. But after being acquired by Zipcar in 2007, the cars vanished from the streets.
John Williams, a spokesman for Zipcar, said the company at one point had about 50 cars in Los Angeles-area neighborhoods but in the last couple of years has scaled back.
“It wasn’t generating the revenue that we needed it to,” Williams said of the L.A.-area neighborhood program. “The lesson learned there was we needed to find where the best usage was and we saw that on the university campuses.”
The company now concentrates on the college market in L.A., with about 30 cars available at campuses, he said.
Williams said he wasn’t sure if Zipcar would submit a proposal to expand into Santa Monica, but noted the company launched a pilot program in partnership with Los Angeles last September that brought 12 Zipcars to the city’s neighborhoods.
“The long term approach is to find the best spots in the greater Los Angeles area where car sharing can succeed,” Williams said.
Despite Zipcar’s decision to scale back in the area, Colfax and others in the industry say Santa Monica and some other pockets in the region remain attractive markets for carsharing.
“I think the overall L.A. basin is a difficult carsharing market,” said Dave Brook, a Portland-based carsharing consultant. “There certainly are some areas that are prime territory for carsharing and Santa Monica is among the most prime areas it’s got.”
But he said to entice a company Santa Monica will have to work out an incentive package. Even much denser cities where cars are less embedded in the culture generally have to provide some incentives, he said.
“Carsharing is not a high-margin business, so you need all the help you can get,” he said.
Even so, it appears to be a business with growing appeal for entrepreneurs.
Melissa Hebert launched her company, LAX Carsharing, last year to concentrate on the L.A.-area. And several established companies like U-Haul, Hertz Rent-a-Car and Enterprise Rent-A-Car have all recently entered the carsharing business.
Hebert said in her business model strong partnerships with cities and developers are a must. She didn’t disclose any details of the pitch she’ll make, but said she plans to submit a proposal to Santa Monica.
“It’s a big walking city so we want to be able to take advantage of that,” she said.