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California Assembly Passes Personal Car-Sharing Insurance Bill

The California Assembly voted unanimously yesterday to support AB 1871, a bill that would allow car owners to share their personal vehicles in coordination with car-sharing services without voiding their personal auto insurance. The bill opens the door to redefining car ownership, leading to economic, environmental and traffic congestion improvements, according to its sponsors.

"What's exciting about this bill is it will facilitate more car sharing," said Assemblymember Dave Jones (D-Sacramento). Jones said personal car sharing reduces the need to own a car in the first place, lowers the cost of owning the car that you've already purchased and reduces overall traffic and parking problems. "This will allow us to take car-sharing to the next level."

Several services, such as Divvy Car and Relay Rides, already help individual car owners share their vehicles, though current California insurance laws permit insurers to void personal car insurance policies if owners receive compensation for the service. Unless drivers obtain a livery or commercial license, getting money for a ride has to be as informal as sharing gas expenses among a carpool. Other programs for helping seniors who are too old to drive, like the Independent Transportation Network and Neighbor Ride, rely on the goodwill of volunteers and charitable organizations.

If AB 1871 becomes law in California, drivers will be able to offer their own vehicles through car-sharing companies to a network of their choosing. Because cars are unused on average more than 90 percent of the time, owners could get money for an asset that is otherwise unused and depreciating.

"Usually the cost of owning a car is $400-800 a month, assuming it's a reasonably nice car," said Sunil Paul, CEO of car-share start-up Spride Share and a supporter of the bill. "If you earn a couple hundred bucks a month, that goes a long way toward covering your expenses."

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TransForm’s Car-Free Challenge Starts June 1st

TransForm's annual Car-Free Challenge is coming up in a few weeks and they've produced this video to get you in the spirit. If you'll remember last year we profiled several inspirational participants who demonstrated that you don't need a ride to raise a family and the mystique of a driver's license as personal ticket to freedom doesn't hold sway for some teenagers in the East Bay.

If you're already car-free or car-lite, they still want you to sign up and give inspiration to those who might not think it's possible to drive less or not at all.

As TransForm's Susanna Handow noted, the "walk-bike-transit-athon" was a real inspiration last year for participants and they expect a larger pool of challengers this year. Beyond a week of reduced driving, said Handow, they hope the event inspires year-long changes to habits that encourage better health and a lower carbon footprint. We'll be tracking the stories and highlighting some of them on Streetsblog. Hopefully you'll be among them.


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Commentary: Keep Drilling, Stop Driving, Use Oil Wisely

Deep_Horizon_Fire.jpgBP's Deepwater Horizon. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

(Editor's note: This is an Op-Ed from Jason Henderson, Geography Professor at San Francisco State University, who is writing a book on the politics of mobility in cities. He grew up in New Orleans where he spent much time in the coastal wetlands of Louisiana while also observing the activity of the oil and gas industry. He has never owned a car.)

For almost a century my native Louisiana has been expendable when it comes to America's voracious appetite for oil. Now after over a week of national media attention, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is suddenly big enough to bring President Obama down for a disaster tour this past Sunday.

No one can say when the gushing river of oil will stop. But as we watch and ponder this sorry state of affairs, environmentalists will demand loudly that Obama retract his earlier proposal to loosen offshore drilling policy. Perhaps they are right, but like other Americans, most of those same people will likely keep on driving. So I take this moment to urge environmentalists to reflect upon their relationship between oil and driving. We need oil and are lucky as a civilization to be endowed with oil, but most people are squandering this precious resource by driving. We need to use oil more wisely.

I see incredible value in oil. It is one of the most utilitarian natural resources known to humans. Oil stores tremendous amounts of energy, it is very easy to transport long distances by pipeline, rail, ship, and by truck, and it can sit for a long time without degrading. It can be refined and distilled easily and its petroleum by-products are used in plastics and pharmaceuticals, and are part of the food system.

Wind turbines and solar panels are made from polymers that come from oil. The new alternative energy future promoted by environmentalists will be made from oil. Growing plants to drive cars also requires oil. Oil will be needed to build new high speed rail lines, bicycle networks, light rail systems, electric buses, and new ways of organizing work and shopping through compact urban development. In sum, we'll need to keep drilling for oil so that we can shift to a more sustainable energy path that significantly reduces our overall dependence on oil.

As many environmentalists point out, we do not need to keep drilling everywhere. We do not need to keep searching further offshore, or push into remote, wild areas, or burn toxic tar sands. We need to conserve. We need to reduce per-capita consumption. But most importantly, we need to stop driving everywhere for everything so that oil can be used more intelligently and judiciously.

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California Poised to Allow Personal Vehicle Sharing Services

Car sharing is a growth industry, as pioneer City CarShare would tell you, and it has beneficial environmental and economic impacts. Studies of car sharing services like Zipcar and City CarShare show that for every car that is shared, up to 15 private vehicles are taken off the road. Owning and operating a personal car is the second-highest family expense behind owning a house, and the highest expense for people who rent.

The car sharing model, however, is predicated on operating in dense urban areas where there is good transit and a large pool of prospective customers who don't want to own a car. On the other hand, it doesn't make financial sense for car sharing companies to operate in suburbs or rural areas. Not yet, at least.

City CarShare is trying to pioneer personal vehicle sharing, where car owners would make their vehicles available to a pre-screened pool of personal vehicle sharing participants during the periods of the day when their car is not in use, which for many vehicles is upwards of 90 percent of the time.

If you drove to work in San Francisco and left your car idle from 8 am to 6 pm, for instance, you could allow a pool of prospective vehicle share participants to use your car, for which you would make enough money to cover the cost of usage. If you consider the cost of owning and insuring your car to already be a sunken expense, this could be a way to "make" money for a commodity that is otherwise depreciating in value.

Of the many challenges to expanding car sharing to privately owned vehicles, the first obstacle is current insurance law. In most states, unless you are commercially licensed or you operate a livery service, receiving compensation from others for using your vehicle voids your personal car insurance coverage.

To this end, City CarShare has been working with California State Assemblymember Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) and Spride Share, a new company started by cleantech financier Sunil Paul of Spring Ventures, to draft Assembly Bill 1871, which would change insurance law to permit remuneration for personal vehicle sharing.

"The idea is to make it possible for people to participate in car-sharing programs," said Assemblymember Jones. "This is part of a package of approaches that look at ways we can engage insurance companies in a positive way to encourage better environmental behavior."

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Some Bay Area Developers Ditch the Extra Parking Spaces for More Units

When it comes to building new developments in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, the battle over limiting the construction of new parking spaces is pitched. Parking reform advocacy organizations like Livable City, which maintains a listserv populated by car-free and livable-city advocates keeping a keen watch on planning commission parking exemptions, have long encouraged city leaders to tighten the parking-to-unit ratios in dense neighborhoods flush with transit and bicycling options.

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Why, these advocates ask, would any city seeking to be a model of sustainability require developments to have one parking space per unit, as is the case across San Francisco outside of the downtown core and certain neighborhood plan zones (the mandatory parking ratio can be higher in other Bay Area cities)? San Francisco is the city it is because it was built densely, with minimal parking, and areas like the Mission or North Beach would be impossible with 1:1 ratios.

And who should they hang for granting variances permitting higher than 2:1 ratios, as happened last week when a two-unit home at 2626 Larkin Street in Russian Hill received permission from the San Francisco Planning Commission to build five parking spaces, one with a parking stacker for additional cars?

When these questions are asked of city planners and developers, like they were during the struggle to limit parking at 299 Valencia Street, advocates and political leaders are led to believe that it is impossible to finance new developments, particularly condos and non-rental properties, without the maximum parking ratio possible. Less parking, goes the developer refrain, banks will refuse to loan and the units will be impossible to re-sell.

Not all developers buy that argument, however, and some have buildings that disprove it.

"If you are doing a project next to BART or many buses, you really don't need to have a lot of cars," said Oz Erickson, Chairman of the Emerald Fund, Inc, a developer who has built more than 2,000 units in San Francisco. Emerald's newest development, a rental building at 333 Harrison Street in Rincon Hill, will be built with a .5:1 parking-to-unit ratio, even though the developer could appeal for a variance to build more parking.

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ZipCar Starts Second Annual Low-Car Diet Challenge

low_car_diet_1.jpgParticipants in the Low-Car Diet at Justin Hermann Plaza. One participant in a random drawing won a Swiss Bike donated by Montague Bikes. Photos: Matthew Roth
Zipcar kicked off its second annual Low-Car Diet challenge today in the 13 cities around the country where the company does business. The challenge asks participants to give up their personal cars for one month and walk, ride a bicycle, and take transit in place of driving.

In San Francisco, Zipcar provided each participant with weekly Muni passes and BART tickets as needed. Should participants need to drive at some point throughout the month, they can use a Zipcar.

Michael Uribe, General Manager for San Francisco Zipcar, stressed the economic benefit of not owning a car, saying that 19 percent of household income is spent on auto-related expenses. According to Uribe, Zipcar users spend only six percent of their household income on cars. He also said car-sharing in general is meant to chip away at the idea that owning a car is necessary, or that a family needs two cars when one is rarely used.

"Growing up, owning a car is really a rite in America," said Uribe. "This reverses that paradigm and frees up money to go back into the local economy. Also, for every one Zipcar on the road, we're replacing 15 to 20 vehicles."

Uribe himself is a recent convert to carlessness. "It took me a while to learn to live without a car," he said.  When asked how he finds the lifestyle, he smiled and said it was stress-free. "I don't think I'd ever own a car again. I don't have to pay for parking, I find myself exploring the city more, various neighborhoods. I find I eat better because I'm exploring different neighborhoods and buying locally grown organic foods."

"I eat a lot more," he added, but said he hasn't put on any weight given how much additional walking he is doing.

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Ad Nauseam: What Are You Implying, Chase?

Chase_small.jpgPhoto by Matthew Roth

Welcome to town Chase.  I'm super impressed you have been reading Streetsblog San Francisco and made an ad that reflects some of the knowledge you've acquired here. This is obviously a shout out to the car-free community. Might the admen understand the incredible cost savings of ditching the car for a bike, which can save you more than $9,000 every year in direct vehicle costs, not to mention the health savings from an active lifestyle and the peace of mind of contributing fewer greenhouse gases to a dangerously warming planet?

Or maybe this is an homage to the cyclist as hero, walking into the sunset after defeating the highway lobby in Washington and securing billions for transit in the re-authorization of the transportation act.

I'm not sure a big bank like that has the time in between taking billions of taxpayer bailouts and spending them on new airplanes to focus on the subtleties of the message they're sending to the more than one-hundred thousand San Franciscans who ride weekly.

What do you think, Streetsblog Nation?

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Treehugger Names Streetsblog “Best Green Transportation Advocacy”

Wow! We are honored. Treehugger blogs dozens of green-goings-on throughout the U.S. and the world everyday (so many some say it is hard to read them all!) We get regularly featured with some of our posts and films and we are very thankful. But even more exciting is the fact that Streetfilms, Streetsblog and the Livable Streets Initiative were chosen Best Green Transportation Advocacy in their First Annual "Best of Green" selections this week. Lots of great awards in there besides us, and thanks to Treehugger as our numbers are huge this week.

Please take a second to VOTE FOR US by following this link.

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A Decidedly Dim View of Electric Vehicles

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Electric Vehicles (EVs) are all the rage these days and the press seems to treat them as a palliative for all that ails our fossil-fuel-driven, automobile-dependent transportation network.  The New York Times has fallen in love with Better Place, an electric-car battery maker that seeks to replace much of the U.S. fleet of vehicles with ones that run on electric batteries, which could be changed at battery stations much the way we currently fill up at gas stations.

Then Mayor Gavin Newsom yesterday announced San Franciso's new agreement with City CarShare and Zipcar to include two electric plug-in vehicles in their fleets (one each), proclaiming that "Electric vehicles are the future of transportation and the Bay Area is the testing ground for the technology." 

Unfortunately, that's a future I don't find attractive, and one that should concern livable streets urbanists.  It hearkens to the "something for nothing" culture bemoaned so eloquently by James Howard Kunstler and implies that Americans don't have to give up any of the convenience of cars to become energy independent.

As Kunstler put it:

We became a nation of overfed clowns who believed that it was possible to get something for nothing, who ravaged the landscape in an orgy of wanton carelessness, who believed they were entitled to lives of everlasting comfort and convenience, no matter what, and expected the rest of the world to pay for it. We even elected a vice-president who declared that this American way of life was non-negotiable.

We now face the most serious challenge to our collective identity, economy, culture, and security since the Civil War. The end of the cheap fossil fuel era will change everything about how we live in this country. It will challenge all of our assumptions. It will compel us to do things differently - whether we like it or not.

That is, unless we can just find a clean source of fuel, the electric-car folks might contend.

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Living a Car-Free Life

Editor's note: Yesterday we asked readers to write and share their stories about car-sharing. This is the first installment. We'd like to know how you feel about car-sharing services, whether they've changed your transportation choices and travel behavior, whether you've sold your personal car, or held off on buying a new vehicle. Feel free to send your story to tips@sf.streetsblog.org.

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Living car-free, or car-lite, as I like to say, has had a huge impact on my life. My husband and I haven't owned a car since 2001 when we sold the 1998 Honda Civic we bought new not long after we got married. The push to sell the car came from me. I had changed jobs and instead of working in South San Francisco I was working in downtown SF. Since I was the one who drove to work 2 to 3 times a week (taking my bike on Cal Train the other days) I was sick of worrying about getting parking tickets if we failed to move the car on street cleaning days, tired of wondering if it would be broken into or stolen. And the fiscally prudent Yankee in me hates depreciating assets sitting around eating up insurance and maintenance money.

What allowed me to sell my husband on going car-free was City CarShare. At the time we were more concerned about our ability to get out of the City on the weekends to do things.  Back then we "needed" a car to do things.  Now, when I look back at how worried we were it makes me laugh. Car-schmar, who needs it? 

In 2001, there was only one Car Share Pod within a mile of our place.  We walked about 10 blocks to get a car. Now we have 4 pods within six blocks of where we live yet we use cars less then ever. Yes, our vehicle miles traveled has definitely gone down, while our miles walked and miles biked continues to climb. Interestingly, our miles traveled by Muni is probably about the same. NextBus makes Muni more convenient than it used to be, but my bike is still more reliable.

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