The Twin Cities is a great place to live if you have a car. If you can’t afford a car or don’t drive for personal reasons, you may lose access to vital resources.
Minneapolis-St. Paul has a growing network of light rail, bus rapid transit and regular bus lines that give people without cars a platform to support their transportation needs. But transit does not provide equal opportunities in all areas. For example, transit does not function as well in lower-density suburban areas. In general, people tend not to use buses or light rail if they have to walk more than a half mile, according to the Federal Highway Administration. So, if housing and activity centers are spread out, as they are in the suburbs, bus lines cannot create sufficient coverage.
The Twin Cities have collaborated to respond to an insufficient transit system, as well as a lack of car ownership among low-income people, with a novel public transit idea. Evie is a car-sharing service that uses electric vehicles and is municipally owned. You may not think of car-sharing as a form of public transit, but it serves a public purpose:
- Increasing connection to places where traditional transit does not work.
- Promoting sustainability by reducing the number of cars on streets.
- Giving people in low-income communities better access to cars on an as-needed basis.
Evie is an experiment still in progress. Its challenge is to find its roots in a private vehicle-focused society.
What Is Evie Carshare?
The Evie program launched in February 2022 and is operated by HOURCAR. The program consists of four main parts: the home area, the vehicles, the charging spots and the mobile app. When signing up, it takes a couple of days to have your information processed. Evie needs to make sure you have a valid driver’s license.
The home area is a 35-square-mile zone where Evie cars start and end their trips. You can take cars anywhere outside of the home area, to see friends or run errands. To end the trip, you must return it to the home area. The home area borders are different than Minneapolis and St. Paul city borders because of Evie’s goal to expand car access equitably.
The Vehicles. The fleet has 120 Chevy Bolts in service out of a planned 170. Each vehicle has a 250-mile range. You may pause a trip anywhere. A trip may end anywhere within the home area at a legal on-street parking space. The only exception is that a car cannot end at a metered space with less than a two-hour time limit.
The charging spots are spread throughout the home area.
Each charging spot has four outlets. Two are reserved for Evie vehicles and two are available for anyone who wants to charge an electric vehicle.
The Evie Carshare app (Android, iOS) is the best way to locate vehicles. It has a live map similar to ride-hailing apps. You can unlock vehicles, pause trips for a “stopover,” and end trips using either the app or by tapping a registered GoTo card — commonly used for rides on Metro Transit buses or trains — to the Evie reader. If you make a stopover at a paid parking spot outside of the home area, paying for parking is your responsibility.
What are the costs? Trips are billed at different rates based on membership options (individual, student, business or Access PLUS) as well as different rates based on duration (minute, hour or day).
Evie covers the cost of parking within the home area, charging at designated stations, vehicle insurance and maintenance. Users also should be aware of what Evie calls “totally avoidable fees” for a damaged vehicle, excessive cleaning of a vehicle, or a vehicle that has to be towed. You can earn drive credit for ending a trip at an Evie charging spot and also if you move an improperly parked vehicle, such as one in a tow zone.
Data on Evie so far
During Evie’s first six months of use, it had 1,456 unique users or close to 12 users per car, according to the Evie six-month report released in late September. Evie vehicles averaged one trip per day during the first three months and 1.7 trips per day during the second three months. These numbers may seem low, but according to Frank Douma, a researcher at the Center for Transportation Studies, “[Evie cars] are not necessarily sitting around any more than a private vehicle would, at zero to two daily trips.”
Locating charging spots in mixed-use neighborhoods that have housing, stores, schools, and more benefits the concept of car-sharing. When people have reasons to come and go from an area, a feedback loop emerges: More shoppers create more demand for shops, which create more demand for shoppers. Similarly, Evie will reap benefits by locating spots near a mixed-use area with high foot traffic and strong transit connections.
Will Schroeer, Evie system designer and HOURCAR board member, calls it the network effect. “If you look at Mac-Groveland, there are students here, there are a bunch of stores along Grand Avenue. It’s the perfect density. There’s a lot of transit. It’s sort of the perfect location,” he says.
“It’s a little like a fax machine. When you have one machine it’s no good, but when there are 200 fax machines, then you can communicate with a lot of people. We wanted a breadth of hub distribution across the service area.”
Evie contributes toward its equity goal by providing a discounted membership plan, called Access PLUS, to those earning less than 50% of the area median income.
The “free-floating” nature of the Evie network provides flexibility for users, but it can be inconvenient, too. To use the service, you check an app to confirm a car is near you and then reserve it. But what if no car is near you? In that way, Evie can be less reliable than traditional transit.
Evie is experiencing what Schroeer calls “growing pains” with supply, demand and distribution. “We want people to know that it’s a reliable option for them and we just have to build a fleet that’s large enough to support everyone,” Schroeer says. He hopes that increasing the number of vehicles will help remedy these issues.
Vehicle drift is an interesting phenomenon that emerged from the six-month report. You do not need to return Evie cars to where you got them. Where they end up is based on destination demand. Over the first three months, four vehicles per week drifted from St. Paul to Minneapolis. Over the second three months, nine vehicles per week drifted. This required HOURCAR to manually redistribute vehicles.
“Minneapolis has a bigger economic gravitational pull. Once a car ends up in Minneapolis it’s probably more likely to stay there because of more people going back and forth in Minneapolis,” Schroeer says.
Douma proposes the use of incentives to encourage users to end trips in St. Paul. Currently, if you return a vehicle to a charging spot you get drive credit.
Russ Stark is the chief resilience officer and a former City Council president for the City of Saint Paul. He helped shape Evie and manages the city’s climate action plan. He compares vehicle distribution throughout the home area to a chicken-and-egg scenario. If an area lacks vehicles, it is difficult for users to start trips. But if relatively few users reside in an area, fewer trips will end there. “We think that increased engagement and outreach will help to solve that problem. It will also reduce the labor for HOURCAR to have to keep moving the cars around because users will naturally do that,” Stark says.
People with cars have more freedom of movement than those who do not. A program like Evie has the potential to expand mobility and save time and money for people who could otherwise not afford a car.
“Car ownership is very expensive and not everybody can own cars. In some neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, car ownership can be as low as 50 or 60 percent. In suburban areas, the rate is more like 90 percent,” says Yingling Fan, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center of Transportation Studies.
Unfortunately, Twin Cities public transit is often slow and unreliable, and that problem will only increase with the Metro Transit service cuts rolled out on December 3. “Cars are the only reliable way that you can go from anywhere to anywhere, at any time,” Douma says. “In dense European cities, you can do that with transit, but in places like the Twin Cities, the bus may only show up once an hour during off-peak times.”
Some people need cars. If you live in the suburbs, transit infrastructure is lacking. If you often transport large items or are a caregiver for a child or an elderly parent, you may need ready access to a car. But, many people use cars based on habit and convenience. In a core area, you can walk, bike, and use traditional transit for most trips. For the few trips that do require a car, Schroeer proposes the use of a shared Evie vehicle. He calls it car-light. “There’s a need in between being completely car-free and owning your own car,” Schroeer says.
The strategic placement of urban highways has decimated and disadvantaged neighborhoods of color. Electric car sharing, says Stark, can increase transportation access for those who are systemically disadvantaged.
“We are focusing on opportunities to provide benefits to some of our most vulnerable populations in St. Paul, including low-income residents, residents of color, folks who live in neighborhoods along freeways and who are therefore exposed to more air pollution, and folks who live in areas that experience more urban heat island effects who are therefore going to experience the impacts of climate change quicker than other neighborhoods,” Stark says.
Engagement with potential users was critical in shaping the project, he says, including “a price point that seemed reasonable and that people could afford.”
Is Evie a Good Option for the Twin Cities?
Electric car sharing reduces the need for car ownership and parking spaces. In theory, says Fan, fewer cars on the streets means there is less need for public parking spaces and, for individuals, fewer car-related expenses.
“The cost to society will certainly be lower when compared to the business-as-usual situation where we are dependent on private cars,” Fan explains, which involve the expense not just of purchasing the car and filling it with gas but also maintenance, repairs and parking.
The Twin Cities has spatial gaps in its transit service and social gaps in transportation equity. Car-sharing can connect people without cars to suburban areas, including their amenities and their jobs. In the city, Evie can combine with multimodal options such as walking and busing to cover different niches and needs. “There is a potential, in theory, for this service to fit into a menu of transportation options so people can move as freely as they want to,” Douma says.
Car-sharing is not a one-size-fits-all solution, Fan says. “Car-sharing is not going to be the silver bullet. Despite how wonderful it seems, it’s often still someone driving alone. Car-sharing does not necessarily mean carpooling. This is a very important difference.”
- Evie should continue to expand its fleet size to reduce the chance of cars being absent when and where users need them.
- HOURCAR should examine the best way to encourage vehicle placement that increases access and understanding. Stark and Douma see autonomous vehicles as a future possibility to reduce manual labor because the cars could drive themselves to where they are needed most.
- Evie should improve access to people with disabilities. People in wheelchairs cannot operate Evie’s Chevy Bolt cars. Autonomous vehicles may also help with this.