In the past five years, HourCar’s service has seen a steep decline, due to a reduced number of vehicles, a lack of basic maintenance and plain old neglect. HourCar management needs to focus more attention on these problems and improve the system before it implodes.
A Little History
My wife and I have been members of HourCar since it started back in 2005. Because we don’t own a car, we rely on HourCars for trips to the suburbs for doctor’s appointments and to reach other destinations that are inaccessible by public transit. We also use the service for hauling larger goods or taking elderly people to places that they need to go. This is typical of most car share users. We also use Lyft, and we used to use taxis (until they stopped showing up on time). But HourCar is vastly more economical and convenient, and it helps us to be car-free. The entire purpose of HourCar and car share systems is to help people be car-free, or help them get rid of one of their cars, thus reducing overall numbers of cars and car trips. More than electrification, reducing car ownership and vehicle miles traveled are critical for reducing carbon emissions and confronting climate change.
When the service started, HourCars were abundant, in great condition, and well-maintained. We had five cars within about a mile of our house — two at the University of St. Thomas and three on Grand Avenue near Macalester College. In addition, there was a pickup truck on Syndicate Street near University Avenue, which was great for hauling soil, mulch, lumber or other large items and for moving or helping others to move from one house or apartment to another. We only used the pickup truck once or twice a year, but it was incredibly convenient, and there are many things in our house that we simply couldn’t have moved without it. The web application for using the system was also great. You could see when a particular car was booked or easily search by vehicle type if you needed a particular size of car, like a pickup truck or a station wagon.
Today, the cars are much less abundant. We’re down to just two cars in our immediate area (a 60% decline). These remaining two cars are located at the Grand Avenue/Macalester location. They are almost always signed out. So one needs to reserve weeks in advance to be assured of having access. The pickup trucks are gone — a huge loss — and this phenomenon of fewer cars/trucks is replicated in neighborhoods all across the Twin Cities.
The app for signing cars out also declined in certain ways. You can no longer see when a vehicle is signed out. Instead, you have to repeatedly enter possible time intervals to see if there are any times in a given day when a car is available. You can also no longer search by vehicle type. This can be important if you need to haul lumber or other large objects or have multiple passengers. The pickup trucks are gone, but at least the Subaru wagons have more hauling capacity than, say, a Honda Fit. Finally, the app has various glitches that have gone unfixed.
Much more concerning is that the cars are no longer reliable. They are basically “rent-a-wreck” cars. The two Honda Fits I rented a couple weeks ago both had 100,000 miles or more, were dirty inside and out and had major body damage that had gone unrepaired (broken bumpers, missing hubcaps, broken mirrors, etc.), which past drivers had noted but no one at HourCar had bothered to repair.
I’ve frequently gotten both Honda Civics and Fits whose tire inflation warning light was on. Usually this is because cold temperatures reduce the tire pressure and trigger the light. If the vehicle is driven for a bit, the light will go off. In several instances, however, I’ve had to find a gas station with a functioning air pump and pay $2.50 to pump up the tires.
When I rented my last Honda Fit on a Saturday night, from a dark parking lot, I didn’t think much about this warning light being on because it’s happened so many times before. But I made a note to myself to check the tires in daylight before we started on our trip to Eau Claire the next morning. In daylight, I saw that the right front tire was very low and there was a huge bent spot in the wheel rim. I drove to three different filling stations before I found one with a working air pump and inflated the tire to the recommended pressure. The light went off, but within a block or two of driving, it was back on. Then I called HourCar. They had no other cars that I could sign out. They’ve eliminated so many of their cars that there is zero excess capacity when a reserved car fails.
They said they would call me back to tell me what I should do with the car, but no one called me back for 30-40 minutes. During this time my companion and I realized we were going to have to rent a car ASAP from one of the big car rental companies if we were going to make it to Eau Claire for our 2 p.m. event. All the car rental places in St. Paul were closed on Sunday, so we had no choice but to go to the airport and rent a car there, last minute, at tremendous expense. I had to leave the HourCar in short-term parking because there was no other place at the airport where it wouldn’t be towed. Since I used my credit card to get into short-term parking, I still have to sort out the daily $30 charges that are going to accrue on it should I ever enter short-term parking again with a different vehicle.
It was all super stressful, time-consuming, expensive and unnecessary. I’ve reached the point where I can no longer rely on HourCar for transportation, and that’s depressing.
When I’ve complained in the past, I was told that they have “supply chain issues” or funding problems. I want to believe that, but HourCar has put huge amounts of money and resources into its brand new Evie cars and charging stations. The Chief Resilience Officer for the city of St. Paul, Russ Stark, told me that the Evie program received $3.3 million from a U.S. Department of Energy grant, mostly for charging stations. In addition, it got $4 million from the Metropolitan Council via a CMAQ grant to help purchase the cars, $1.44 million from a regional solicitation grant for expansion to the East Side of St. Paul, $4 million from Xcel Energy, $750,000 from the city of St. Paul, and $350,000 from the city of Minneapolis. Evie also received funding from 3Mgives, Bloomberg, the General Motors Climate Equity Fund, the McKnight Foundation, the American Lung Association and other sponsors. That’s more than $14 million!
Evie Cars Sap Funding and Focus
On top of that, HourCar pays the cost of Evie’s electricity and car maintenance, as well as moving cars during snow events to comply with plowing and parking regulations. I asked HourCar to tell me what percentage of their operating budget is now going to Evie, but they didn’t reply in time for this article. Aside from the money, you need only look at the relative number of vehicles to see where HourCar is putting its energy and focus. There are now only 52 HourCars in the entire Twin Cities, at 37 fixed locations. By contrast, there are currently 130 Evie cars, with more on the way (to reach a target of 170 cars).
The Difference Between Evie and HourCar
So vast amounts of money, staff time and resources are being spent on Evie. Unfortunately, Evie is useless to me and unreliable for many HourCar users. While HourCar users can reserve, sign out and return cars to designated spots, Evie is a “free-floating” form of car share that doesn’t allow reservations. I can’t be sure that an Evie car will be available when I need one, since I can’t reserve it. I don’t know where it will be, and I also can’t know ahead of time how much charge a car near me will have until I search for one. Since it takes a while to charge a car, this can be a major problem. Evies are intended for short, local trips and have a much shorter range, so a trip out to Eau Claire and back would be impossible. Even if it were allowed, I would have to carefully plot out places and times I could charge the car mid-trip or at my destination.
Finally, in addition to having uniformly small cars, Evie basically overlaps with existing bike and transit infrastructure. So why would I need it when I can just as easily bike, bus or Lyft to most local destinations?
Evie’s free-floating car share model is similar to Car2Go, which operated in the Twin Cites from 2013 to 2016. The private German company that ran Car2Go blamed taxes in Minnesota for its failure and eventual pullout. In reality, however, its free-floating business model and uniform car type (tiny Smart cars) was the cause of its failure; it ultimately pulled out of all of North America, the U.K., Brussels and Florence before eventually merging with DriveNow and operating in just 18 European cities. It had to pull out due to a lack of use and profit and because the free-floating business model put it in competition with Uber, Lyft and public transit. The free-floating model and uniform car type were unreliable and not useful for most people who need cars for specific life tasks. Evie is now replicating Car2Go’s failed business model. Its current goal is to get three to five trips per car per day but as of December 2022, it averaged just two. By contrast, in many locations, HourCar far exceeds that.
The difference between HourCar and Evie is similar to the difference between “docked” and “dockless” bikeshare. Docked bikeshare systems still exist all over the U.S., including here in the Twin Cities with Nice Ride. A user can go to a dock and be assured that there will be a bicycle there that they can take to another dock and return. Dockless bikeshare doesn’t have that same reliability. I don’t know if someone will have dropped a dockless bike in my neighborhood when I need one or what kind of condition it will be in when I get to it. Several years back (before the pandemic), the “Dockless Bikeshare Craze” swept China and then the United States, fueled by lots of high-tech startup capital. In St. Paul, we stupidly grabbed at this latest trend and signed an exclusive deal with Lime bikes that pushed out all the docked Nice Ride stations in the city just as people were starting to use and rely on them. Within a year, in China and all over the United States, including St. Paul, these dockless bikeshare companies pulled out or failed precisely because of theft, damage and their lack of reliability. As a result, throughout the pandemic, St. Paul had no bikeshare at all.
Evie is similar to dockless bikeshare or Car2Go. It’s designed for people who need a car on a whim. But most people who need cars know when they are going to need them and where they have to go. They have doctor’s appointments or an elderly relative they have to pick up at a certain time and place, or they have certain large goods they need to purchase. In its current form, Evie is useless for these tasks.
So my assessment of HourCar is that they’ve been putting all their money and resources into new Evie cars and charging stations and ignoring their core business, which they are allowing to decay. If Evie fails, all this investment in it could well cause the entire system to fail, leaving us with nothing.
Whatever happens, there needs to be a major shakeup with HourCar’s management and business plan, because people can no longer rely on HourCars for transportation. They need to better maintain and replace some of their cars and they need to expand the HourCar fleet so reservations aren’t so hard to get and there is at least a tiny bit of padding should a reserved car fail. Finally, they need to bring back the pickup trucks and a better, more useful app. Otherwise, it’s going to be that much harder for a lot of people to be car-free.
Photo at top by Andy Singer