Features: Good to Go

On a hot afternoon four months ago, Larry Shaeffer was driving east on Pine Street in rush-hour traffic when the cars in front of him started to swerve wildly in every direction. Larry hit the brakes till he was inching forward. He figured somebody had double-parked, blocking a lane. It happens a lot in Center City. But as Larry approached the disturbance, he could see that it wasn’t a car at all. It was a woman. She was trying to cross the street. Larry looked closer. Something was wrong. The woman was holding her ground. Instead of stepping away from the cars as they swerved to avoid her, she was lunging toward them. The cars were juking her, like running backs — faking one way, then the other, trying to get by. It looked like the woman was trying to kill herself by getting hit with a car.

Suicide by car.

Holy crap.

Larry pulled to the curb at 20th and Pine, got out, and grabbed the woman by the elbow. Larry is a tall man who does a lot of hiking — tanned arms, flat brown hair. He said, “Now, whatever you’re doing, getting hit by a car is not going to make it better.” His gaze fell on the woman. She looked to be in her late 30s, and was dressed in shorts and a tank top. Her eyes had a glazed-over quality, like a fogged windshield. She struggled against Larry’s grip, trying to jump back into traffic. Larry held on with his left hand and opened his cell phone with his right hand, ready to call 911.

Then Larry noticed that the woman was mumbling to herself in a low voice. She seemed to be telling a sad story about cars: “He has the keys, he keeps the keys, he goes away for a couple days, I don’t have any cars, I don’t have any cars.” She repeated that over and over: “He’s got the keys, I don’t have the keys.” After a minute or two, Larry gathered that she was talking about her boyfriend. The boyfriend wasn’t letting the woman drive his cars.

Larry said, “Have you ever heard of PhillyCarShare?”

The woman made eye contact for the first time. “Yeah, I’ve heard of PhillyCarShare,” she said. “They have red cars.

“Yeah, some of them are red,” Larry said. It was true. PhillyCarShare had red cars — salsa-red Toyota Prius hybrids, especially — but also blue cars, gold cars, silver cars, happy-face-yellow cars. CarShare is essentially a car-rental company, only hipper and smoother. Larry co-founded CarShare as a nonprofit back in 2002, with the goal of making life easier for the carless — for people who don’t drive often enough to justify the expense of car ownership but who nonetheless need a car for the occasional trip or errand. CarShare leases more than 400 vehicles and parks them in “pods” all over the city. Some pods are in parking garages, some are on the street. CarShare’s 35,000-plus members can reserve any of those cars with a few quick keystrokes on a Web page, then zoom off in a car whose doors are most likely branded with the CarShare logo — two stick figures carrying a symbolic “key to the city” under their arms.

There on Pine Street, Larry dug into his pocket and pulled out an actual key to the city. His CarShare key fob. It was a gray, pear-shaped piece of plastic with an electronic ID inside. He held it up in front of the woman’s face. Then he made his pitch, a version of the pitch he had made many times to many groups: This key fob gets you into 400 cars. You don’t need to own your own car. You don’t need to pay for gas or insurance. Just join CarShare. You only use the car when you need it, paying a low daily or hourly rate (as little as $2.90 an hour). Larry said, “You don’t need your boyfriend’s cars anymore. You’re free.”

The woman stood up straight. Her eyes seemed to unfog. Larry couldn’t believe it. “You stay here,” he said. “I’m gonna get you some information on PhillyCarShare.” He ran back to his car to get a brochure. Then he realized: Oh shit, I’m going to have a crazy woman using the service. That’s not good. So instead of grabbing a CarShare brochure, he grabbed a postcard advertising a competing service, Flexcar. He had seen the Flexcar postcard downtown and had picked it up out of curiosity. He walked back to the woman and thrust the Flexcar postcard into her hand. She read the card. Then she walked away, smiling, five minutes after trying to kill herself.

WHEN LARRY TOLD ME THIS STORY, THE WHOLE time I was thinking, really? Did this actually happen? He swore it did. And then I thought, Why not? Is this woman — minus her apparent need for some Celexa or something — really so different from me, from us? Sick of dealing with cars? Sick of rising gas prices, sick of $1,500-a-year insurance payments and sudden $400 bills when the brake rotors crap out? Sick of the guilty knowledge, post-Gore, post-An Inconvenient Truth, that every time you drive to IKEA you’re abrading the thin blue eggshell that’s the only thing keeping the planet from frying? This woman isn’t some aberration. She’s pissed off. Disempowered — by cars. By these putatively empowering machines.

In the old telling of the American story, the car is an inherent good. Ours is an awesomely big country … and what lets you experience that bigness is the car … and so the car is freedom, and freedom is America. Problem: In cities of 50,000 or more, where two out of three Americans live, the car is not an inherent good. The car eats real estate, degrades the air, cuts us off from the joys of public space — simple facts that haven’t stopped urban planners from designing cities around cars instead of people, or the government from misdirecting tax dollars. It subsidizes cars, not trains. It builds roads, not tracks. We don’t need more cars, but we get them anyway. Such is the power of that emotional bond, reinforced by advertising, cemented by lobbying: car/America, America/car.

We know, of course, that if we want to be good citizens, we ought to drive less. Change our behavior. Hard to do, easier to talk about. Here is the key number, then — the number that brings the accomplishment of CarShare into stark relief. Ten thousand. Of its 35,000 members, CarShare has convinced more than 10,000 to get rid of their cars. In five short years, starting from nothing — from an idea and a few thousand bucks in spare change — CarShare has taken a meat cleaver to that quintessential emotional bond, the car/America bond, 10,000 times. And it’s still hacking away. There are now car-sharing services in at least 21 U.S. cities, but CarShare’s leaders say they’re expanding faster than any of them, adding more than 4,000 members in October alone — their best month ever.

In a great American city, CarShare has redefined an American birthright as an American burden. And the real question — the question with relevance for any corporate marketer, any idealistic Green, basically anyone trying to convince us consumers to change our behavior for the Good — has got to be the simplest one …


How the hell did they do it?

LARRY KNEW THERE WERE BOG TURTLES BY THE river. He’d seen them with his own eyes. Bog turtles are an endangered species in Pennsylvania, and he worried that the new highway the state was planning to build through Doylestown — this was back in 1996 — would disrupt their habitat. Larry led a successful community protest against the highway, plastering the town with fliers: WE DON’T NEED MORE ROADS, WE NEED LESS CARS.

The less-cars mantra got Larry curious about car sharing, a concept invented by Europeans in the ’40s, revived in Europe in the ’80s, and picked up by progressives in West Coast cities like Portland and San Francisco. In 2002, Larry — who restores furniture for a living and runs a tree-planting nonprofit called Philly Tree — attended a meeting of the Washington Square West Civic Association. He told the board, much of it lawyers, about the virtues of car sharing. The lawyers weren’t into it. But a lanky guy in the back of the room felt something click.

Clayton Lane was a transportation planner with the Philly office of the national firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. He worked on huge municipal projects all over the country. A lot of the time it was his job to tell cities that their ideas were dumb. “The Simpsons monorail exists in every major city,” he says. Other times he worked frantic 60-hour weeks only to see the project vanish, like the $3 billion extension of the Broad Street Line here in Philly. “I spent seven years there, enjoyed it a lot, and never saw a single thing I worked on get built.” But with car sharing, “We could actually do this,” he thought.

“We” was Clayton and Larry and three other like-minded souls they crossed paths with over the next few months, including a woman named Tanya Seaman, a planner with the Center City District. The five co-founders emptied their pockets and came up with $25,000 in start-up funds. They launched in November 2002 with two cars, a silver Prius and a blue Matrix, parked for free at the Whole Foods on South Street. For that first year, the board members did everything themselves — branding, accounting, answering phone calls, even car-washing. Larry had a system for washing cars modeled after the Viet Cong, who used to deliver supplies (and bombs) to villages on the backs of bikes. He loaded soaps and a portable vacuum cleaner onto his bike’s rack, pedaling from car to car, meeting Clayton on the weekends to do outreach, especially at farmers’ markets. The markets were ripe with “low-hanging fruit,” in Larry’s words: “Tree-huggers.” CarShare’s early-adopter demographic. Nowadays it’s free to sign up with CarShare, but back then, it cost $25 plus a $350 deposit. “The farmers were, like, amazed. They’d just observe me. People giving me their credit cards, their cash. What is this guy selling?”

That was the funny thing. In the beginning, the pitch was heavy on the environmental and civic benefits — CarShare members walk more, use trains more, keep money local, save the Earth, etc., etc. But the pitch shifted almost immediately to wallet concerns, to the bottom line. Even with the city agencies, the ones not known for being easy to work with or progressive, CarShare caught on — not because it was Good, but because it helped people Make Problems Go Away. The Parking Authority got involved early on, after Tanya made a pitch to the Authority’s Linda Miller, who’s now on the CarShare board; the Parking Authority thought CarShare could help relieve the parking crunch by taking cars off the road, freeing up spaces. The Parking Authority leased CarShare a few spots in its neighborhood lots (for free) and eventually created 40 new on-street spaces for pods. (CarShare pays a yearly fee for each spot.) For city government, which signed on to use CarShare, the benefits were even clearer. CarShare let the city get rid of as many as 330 fleet cars and save $7 million over five years — eliminating, in one fell swoop, the practice of cars “being handed down like Eagles tickets,” says Bob Fox, of the city’s Office of Fleet Management. Even in South Philly, where “the car is this sacred object,” says Councilman Frank DiCicco, CarShare caught on. DiCicco pitched it to his increasingly young, creative-class constituents, and even to the elderly Italians.

And at every early pitch, at every early community meeting, there were these passionate CarShare people — sometimes it was Larry, energetic and grassroots and crunchy as hell, but it was also Clayton and Tanya, who didn’t seem like hippies, who were the kind of people who drank soda at the Christmas party, who had spent their working lives at computers, in conference rooms, wearing sensible clothes, talking about maps. Tanya, red-haired, bespectacled, was from San Francisco, the daughter of a research physicist and a legal mediator; Clayton was from Miami, the son of a Brooklyn jewelry salesman and a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. They loved cities in general and this city specifically. Neither owned a car. (Tanya tools around town on a little folding bike.) Crucially, they knew how to talk to stakeholders, especially Clayton — how to, in the words of Clayton’s old boss at Parsons Brinckerhoff, “boil it down into a sound bite.” And Tanya and Clayton were canny, because they needed everybody on board if CarShare was going to work. They needed the Parking Authority. They needed SEPTA.

By the end of 2002, CarShare had 134 members. By the end of the next year, it was 721. Then 1,730. Then 3,045, the year that Clayton and Tanya started dating, became a couple. Then 10,172. Now it’s over 35,000. When I asked Clayton how big he thought CarShare could get, he said, “Somewhere between here and a million,” which is the number of people in the Philly metro area who don’t use a car to commute, minus the number of people who live in neighborhoods too sprawled-out to support CarShare, minus a few hundred thousand for humility’s sake. It’s possible that the for-profit national company Flexcar could cut into CarShare’s market share — Flexcar now has about 100 cars in the city — but Clayton says he’s not worried: “It’s business as usual for us.”

BUSINESS AS USUAL is rapid expansion. Now that CarShare’s yearly budget is up to $10 million, the board wants to put cars in every neighborhood in the city. Even in the poor parts. The black parts. CarShare users have always been overwhelmingly white and hyper-educated — “It was almost like you had to be a Ph.D. to join,” Clayton jokes — and now the focus is on what Clayton calls, in a sort-of inapt term, “middle Philadelphia. More of your average Joe.” Which explains the break-dancers that CarShare hired to bust moves in Rittenhouse Square earlier this year, in an attempt to “introduce green into the urban culture a lot more.” This is not the smoothest pitch, nor the least condescending — to tell poor black people to consume less (Clayton: “So right now, lower-middle-income culture is to get more, to move up in society, to consume more”) requires a lot more subtlety than even the canniest transportation planner can muster. But if CarShare is still working on the language of expansion, it’s got the car part of it nailed.

One weeknight in September, nine of CarShare’s most recent acquisitions — sexy convertibles, most of them six months old or less — were driven to the top of the Whole Foods rooftop parking deck, in front of a large projection screen the CarShare people had set up. This was CarShare’s summer-ending, tongue-in-cheek social event: a drive-in movie. A bit of casual swagger: Lookit, you don’t even need a car to go to a drive-in! There was a blue Mini Cooper, insect-shaped, a car from a more perfect future. A silver Miata MX-5. Hot. And one in red. And these weren’t even the most pimped-out cars in the fleet; CarShare had recently bought two silver models from the BMW 3-series, 10 silver Audi A4s, six blue Volvo S40s, and six blue Camry hybrids, each luxury sedan featuring “discreet branding” more appropriate to, say, attending a high-school reunion.

A few hundred people, mostly young, racially diverse, swarmed around and between and even inside the parked cars against a sparkling skyline, listening to a mixed-race rock band that was not very good, waiting for the movie to start. (Cars, of course.) Two men in green bodysuits and green face paint, the CarShare mascots, walked around holding a giant key and making mime faces at little kids. Clayton and Tanya beamed. Like everybody else, I walked around, pawing at the cars. When I got to the red Miata, I stopped.

There was a woman inside, sitting in the passenger seat. She was reading a book. It said Mrs. Big. She looked totally comfortable — nothing weird here, just sitting in a parked car on a rooftop, reading a book. She was Tayetta Jones, 44. I asked if she owned a car. “No. No. Car insurance.” She shook her head. “And gas. It’s just too much.” She lives near Einstein Hospital in North Philly, and parking is a nightmare: “If you don’t get there early, you will not get a spot in front of your own door.”

I asked what she thought of the Miata. “It’s really really roomy. I was surprised. I can stretch out in it.”

I asked if she considered herself an environmentally minded person. She thought for a second, cocked her head, and said, “Yeeeeaahhhh,” with less than total conviction, adding that when she goes to the grocery store, she usually reuses her shopping bags.

I’M SURE TAYETTA is a good person — about as good as I am, or Clayton is. Which is to say, intermittently good. “I still use plastic bags, right?” says Clayton. “I’ve been using them for years. And I recently discovered they’re a bad thing. And I’m still using them.” It’s likely that Tayetta answered the way she did because it felt like the “right” answer. I would have done the same. We Americans — hell, humans — over-report our virtue and under-report our vice. We lie to researchers about how much we eat, how much we drink and have casual sex and all the rest. Fortunately, CarShare is the rare environmental nonprofit whose success, utility and influence don’t depend on its members being good. It works fine if its members are selfish. In fact, it depends on self-seeking behavior for its continued growth and effectiveness — just like consumer capitalism, at its best, and like the American Constitution … methods of manipulating human nature to achieve a common good.

What’s interesting about CarShare is how uncoercive it is, and at the same time how sneaky. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand why people use it. It’s cheap. It’s there. It works. Simple. But when you look at the big picture, CarShare is kind of a weird business model. A traditional company tries to convince its customers to use more of its product. If CarShare did the same thing, it would defeat the whole environmental point. What CarShare aspires to is a low-key ubiquity; instead of selling a lot of its product to a lot of people, it’s trying to sell a lot of people a little of its product. The holy grail isn’t mileage. It’s membership. More members equals more neighborhoods served, more cars, more convenience, thereby enticing even more members to join, thereby getting more cars off the street. “We’re not trying to get each person who joins to drive out and use the cars as much as possible,” Tanya explains.

Okay, but but but: Clayton and Tanya can’t actually come out and ask people to drive less, because as soon as they do, they become one of those preachy nonprofits that people hate — a Green version of a Sally Struthers commercial, all guilt and fear and we-know-better. And they’d rather not succumb to the South Park critique of the hybrid-car movement — that driving a hybrid is more about flaunting your piety than making a real difference. “We don’t tell people Drive less,” says Clayton. “People don’t want to hear that.” So what they’ve done is to trust the market.

Market-driven environmental solutions are hot right now; every day another lifelong tree-hugger goes to work for a company like Wal-Mart, hawking energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, and of course the Bush administration prefers to let polluters trade “carbon credits” on the open market instead of forcing them to clean up their smokestacks. What CarShare is doing seems both less impactful — after all, if we want to reduce pollution, the best way by far is to lobby the gov to tighten fuel-economy standards and crack down on coal-fired power plants; a single 500-megawatt coal plant pumps out about as much carbon dioxide in a single day as CarShare users have saved in five years — and more profound. If CarShare were, in Tanya’s words, “some policy thing that comes from above,” people wouldn’t integrate it into their lives. They wouldn’t change their ingrained routines the way CarShare has convinced them to, in a way that ought to be replicable with other categories of material things. Car sharing is what’s called a Product Service System — a fancy way of saying you don’t own the product, you only use it. Like a library, or like Netflix. PSS companies have sprung up to share camping gear, pricey art, even houses — but so far, nothing as iconically American as the car, and nothing that’s being pitched with anywhere near the reverse-psychology mojo of Clayton Lane and Tanya Seaman. Ultimately, the payoff isn’t in miles reduced. It’s in mind-sets transformed. These two are selling a service that they want people to use less of, in order to attract more people to sign up to use less of the service they’re selling. They’re like Milo Minderbinder, the capitalist prodigy from Catch-22 who figured out how to buy eggs for seven cents apiece and sell them for five cents apiece and still make a profit. Except Milo was evil, and Clayton and Tanya are good, because they’ve figured out how to sell deprivation as gain without really depriving anybody of anything.

On a crisp Sunday in October, my wife and I rented one of CarShare’s red Mini Cooper convertibles. We drove to Center City and bought some tacos at the Headhouse Square farmers’ market, then walked back to our car and saw a Parking Authority supervisor ticketing it for a meter that had been expired for six minutes. I yelled at the guy. My wife told me to stop. We drove to an apple orchard up in Bucks County. We bought some cider doughnuts, drove home, and returned the Mini Cooper. The final bill for the five-hour rental was a reasonable $51.94. That afternoon, driving a Mini that I did not own, with the top down and the stereo blasting, I saw the future. And lo, it was good. Even if I was the same old American asshole.

Jason Fagone last wrote for Philadelphia on Hershey’s.

E-mail: mail@phillymag.com