Kicking gas

The time might be right for Hourcar

A friend once tried to convince me that automobiles should be com mon property. As he conceived it, a person would hop in whatever car happened to be nearest, turn the key already in the ignition, and off the driver would go. When the time came to return home, repeat the procedure, most likely with a different car. The idea was not without flaw, as he had no reply as to who would pay for such cars and be responsible for the gasoline, insurance and upkeep.

Car-sharing programs such as Minneapolis' Hourcar may have the answers. Members pay by the hour and the mile - gas, maintenance and insurance included. With a fleet of 15 vehicles made up almost exclusively of the hybrid Toyota Prius, Hourcar is able to keep gas mileage around 50 mpg and the fleet impact green.

According to Mary Morse, executive director of the Neighborhood Energy Connection (NEC), the nonprofit organization behind Hourcar, the average member spends about $60 per month on Hourcar, and they get better as their planning skills increase.

&#8220They see a direct correlation between the use of the car and the bill, so it's kind of self-limiting,” she said. &#8220Our members are being smart about their use, keeping their errands all in a row - first stop at the hardware store, then dog food, then frozen food - all in one trip,” she said.

In an ideal world, Morse envisions an Hourcar within a block or two of every home. &#8220We want a place where people don't have to be so resource intensive,” she said.

Morse envisions a day when her own family can go to &#8220no car.”

On the clock

Somehow, these Hourcar people have come to reject the all-American notion that an individual needs thousands of small explosions per minute to propel the seated self from one place to the next. As an American who gets around by way of these explosions, I set out to see just who these folks were.

I had a chance to sit in on a recent Hourcar orientation held at the Uptown YWCA, one of Hourcar's &#8220hubs.” Only Hourcar's Holly Hinmen, a senior program specialist who led the meeting, was present upon my 5:20 p.m. arrival by bike, 10 minutes early. A total of eight new members were expected at the meeting.

As it neared 5:30, I began to doubt whether the full eight would arrive. But at 5:28, a University of Minnesota graduate student named Michelle became the first to show. She had made three transfers on the bus at a total travel time of one hour from her home in St. Paul.

A minute later, Paul arrived on foot, having traveled about three miles from Downtown. We all spoke casually for a while and soon the orientation began to feel like an ice cream social, except they were giving out free energy-efficient light bulbs to each attendee instead of ice cream.

It was soon looking as if they would have a few extra light bulbs. Ten minutes past the start time, only one more person had arrived and Hinmen made the announcement that class would begin, even though we were still short five people.

&#8220To me,” she began, &#8220the most exciting aspect about car-sharing is that everyone is sharing a community resource, so I kind of like to know about the people I'm sharing these cars with.”

At 5:47, a married couple arrived.

Hinmen began the tutorial by explaining the ins and outs of Hourcar, from membership types to what is affectionately called a &#8220key-fob” - a device each member is given that acts as a radio frequency identifier, kind of like an ID-badge and keyless entry. Members &#8220fob in” to begin their session, and &#8220fob-out” when they are finished. At 5:51, a sixth member arrived.

&#8220You can probably understand why one of the golden rules of car-sharing is to always bring the car back on time,” advised Hinmen. &#8220If you know it takes you exactly 60 minutes to get to and from the grocery store, I recommend you reserve the car for an hour and 15 minutes to avoid careening down the sidewalks trying to bring that car back on time. Hi, come on in,” finished Hinmen, perhaps portentously, as the seventh and final attendee arrived at 6:05. I thought back to Morse's conviction that &#8220they get better as their planning skills increase” and hoped it was true.

Thus, rules in line with common courtesy are abundant with Hourcar. Timeliness is one. Cleanliness another:

&#8220Your responsibility as members is to always leave the car as clean as or cleaner than you found it. Now, cleanliness is kind of a relative idea to different people” explained Hinmen. (My mind couldn't help but wander to the banana peel in my car, resting on piles of discarded mail dated from June.)

Electricity in the air, on the streets

As the orientation wound down, Hinmen began to discuss the hybrid Prius. It is no secret that the hybrid itself is a major attraction of Hourcar, and the imperceptible hum of electric excitement may or may not have been in the air, as Hinmen described the idiosyncrasies of the car: a power button rather than an ignition key, a computer display that delivers updates on progress, complete with little digital wheels that turn while driving, and including a satisfying MPG readout that would make any motorcycle jealous.

This is The Hybrid - an automotive revolution in the making, itself an advertisement for something beyond an automobile - a new way of thinking outside the confines of a climate-controlled car, or in my case, a car with an unreliable heater and no air-conditioning.

At the end of the presentation, Hinmen invited the class to take a look at the car that calls the Uptown YWCA parking lot its home base. With my bike seat in tow, I followed her to the car with the group. As we rounded the rear quarter of the car, I noticed that the fuel panel of the Prius had been modified with green tape to read &#8220Kick Gas.” Hinmen fobbed in and invited members to get cozy with the car, and five packed into the Prius.

The magic began upon the push of the power button, and a modest hum like that of a computer booting up quietly declared that the digital tires were ready to roll.

As Hinmen leaned in the driver's side door, offering those inside a few last how-to's, I approached the last person to arrive - the 6:05, by the name Elise - and asked how she got to orientation.

&#8220Our car,” she said. &#8220O-U-R car - my husband's and [mine]” she added, seeing my confusion. And so I asked her what would become of their vehicle. &#8220We're selling it,” she said.

&#8220Will you miss the car?” I asked.

&#8220No. I hate the car. They're just a bunch of maintenance hell if you asked me.”

&#8220What about the ‘American Obsession' with the automobile?” I asked. &#8220People's cars as part of their egos … their identity?”

&#8220Right,” she replied. &#8220Well, that's developed over time, and a different identity can develop over time as well.”

And then I heard Hinmen concluding the hands-on tutorial. As she bade goodbyes rather hurriedly, I thanked her for letting me sit in on the orientation. &#8220How did you get here by the way?” I asked.

&#8220I reserved another car, and my reservation is up in another 10 minutes,” she said quickly.

&#8220Last step,” she said, swiping her key fob over the reader: &#8220Fob out.” I pictured her careening down the sidewalks and made a note to myself to bike in the street.