HOURCAR Is Serving More People, in More Places (and Yes, It’s Challenging)

In 2022, people trying to get around St. Paul and Minneapolis saw three big changes.

  1. The price of cars — new or used, bought for cash or financed — set new records. Gas prices also spiked. As they did in 2021. 
  2. Metro Transit cut service due to a driver shortage and changes in commuting patterns after COVID, with disproportionate impacts to people who are least able to afford a car. As it did in 2021.
  3. The number of carshare vehicles in St. Paul and Minneapolis more than tripled. This was new!

Perhaps because of Nos. 1 and 2, people signed up for HOURCAR, Minnesota’s nonprofit carsharing service, by the thousands. Membership and usage soared. Record numbers of people used shared cars — gas-powered and electric — to get where they needed to go, while saving money on transportation costs.

Yet, Streets.mn contributor and St. Paul-based bicycling advocate Andy Singer is frustrated. He claims that HOURCAR’s service has seen a “steep decline” due to a “reduced number of vehicles.”

What’s going on? Have carshare options in the Twin Cities improved or not?

I’m the chief executive officer of HOURCAR (which, I suppose, makes me “the management” Andy is frustrated with), but I am writing primarily as someone who is passionately interested in creating better transportation options for our community. I’m joined in writing this piece by Will Schroeer, the executive director of East Metro Strong who serves as HOURCAR’s board secretary and is a past contributor to Streets.mn.

We’d like to share more about HOURCAR’s journey and where we’re headed.

HOURCAR launched Evie Carshare in February 2022 in partnership with the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Xcel Energy.

How did we get here?

HOURCAR launched its original round-trip (i.e., bring the car back to where you picked it up) carshare service in 2005. We created a national first by making transit and carshare work better together. We collaborated with our partners at Metro Transit to make it possible for members to use a Go-To card to access our service. We helped people get around without having to spend thousands of dollars every year to own and operate a car.

In 2020, HOURCAR conducted a community engagement project to better understand the transportation needs of Twin Cities residents. We learned that HOURCAR’s round-trip carshare service with gasoline-powered vehicles was simply not enough to meet the needs of many people.

  • People told us that we needed to serve more neighborhoods, with vehicles that didn’t add to their pollution burden.
  • People told us they needed carshare for one link in a trip. One example: I take the bus to work every day, but I need a speedy trip from work to a doctor’s appointment. From there I can catch a different bus home. Round-trip carshare wasn’t flexible enough for all the ways people wanted to use carsharing.

We listened, and worked with our partners at the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Xcel Energy, and a variety of public and philanthropic supporters to design and launch two new services in 2022:

  • Evie Carshare lets people make one-way trips with electric vehicles fueled by renewable energy. With the launch of Evie, we significantly expanded our service area to include more neighborhoods traditionally underserved by the transportation system, especially neighborhoods where large proportions of residents are low-income and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC).
  • HOURCAR Multifamily makes round-trip electric vehicles available at low-income apartment buildings. We’ve opened four new HOURCAR hubs at multifamily sites so far, including two in Minneapolis and one in Little Canada. Most recently, we added a round-trip electric HOURCAR hub at Seasons Park in Richfield, where a majority of residents are primary Spanish speakers.

As a result of listening to people, and creating services that they told us they need, membership and usage of our services exploded. In 2022:

  • Our membership more than doubled, from 2,116 to 5,496 members.
  • Our number of trips quadrupled, from 19,714 to 79,585.

Thirty-five percent of usage came from BIPOC members, and 30% from low-income members, with much higher proportions of low-income and BIPOC residents using the Evie Carshare and Multifamily services.

A Multifamily EV Carshare Vehicle. HOURCAR launched the Multifamily project in August 2022.

Community support is vital

Is Andy Singer wrong to be frustrated? Not at all. Andy got several things right in his article. Some of HOURCAR’s round-trip gas-powered vehicles are getting old and showing their age. We have fewer of these vehicles in service than we did five years ago. And he’s right that some of our members have had difficulty reserving a round-trip vehicle compared with prior years.

Here’s where Andy went wrong: This isn’t the result of a dwindling commitment to our original round-trip service, or because we’re chasing some “dockless” fad. Rather:

  1. We’ve seen a surge of usage unprecedented in HOURCAR’s history.
  2. COVID dramatically changed the auto market. The price of new and used vehicles has essentially doubled. At the same time that more people needed carshare, it got much harder for us to add or replace cars.
  3. As Andy notes in his article, public and philanthropic investments in the Evie Carshare project totaled more than $14 million over the past five years (most of which flows to our partners at the two cities for capital and leasing costs). But HOURCAR hasn’t had any corresponding investments in its round-trip gas-powered service during the same timeframe.

It should come as no surprise to Streets.mn readers that transportation services flourish and remain vital when they have ample public and community support. Evie Carshare is a perfect example of what this can look like. Without such support, HOURCAR is challenged to replace some of its older gas-powered vehicles. This is complicated by a post-COVID environment where, in addition to high prices for new and used vehicles, crashes have proliferated and parts are back ordered for months due to supply-chain issues.

And on top of it all, there’s Minnesota winter. Wear and tear on the roads from one of the snowiest winters on record has resulted in a surge of tire and rim problems on our vehicles like the one Andy unfortunately experienced.

What’s next?

So, are people in the Twin Cities better equipped to get around than they were a year ago? Has carshare in the Twin Cities improved? Yes and yes. Many thousands more people are using carshare, reducing pollution and saving money. And, we need to do more.

The events of the past few years have reinforced the need for a healthy, flexible carshare system. We’re fortunate to live in a community where so many people and institutions came together to scale up carshare and launch new services — services that are successfully serving more people and more needs.

HOURCAR is a local, community-based organization. We live here, we care about this community and we’re working hard every day to address these challenges. We hope Streets.mn readers, who care passionately about “fostering positive connections and inclusive conversations about better places in Minnesota,” will partner with us and become our allies and advocates in helping to ensure that all our programs have the support necessary to thrive.

As a start, we encourage readers to contact their elected representatives to support Senate Bill 671. This bill reduces carshare taxes (thus keeping the services more affordable for all) and provides a dedicated funding source to support growth of local carshare services. The bill has passed the Senate Transportation Committee and is scheduled to be heard by the Taxes Committee on Thursday, April 13.

At a time when transit cuts and expensive cars mean more people than ever need carshare, HOURCAR is serving more people, in more places, with more options, than ever before. We think that’s something Streets.mn readers, and everyone who’s interested in living with fewer cars, should cheer.

All photos by Sam Holt, courtesy of HOURCAR.