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04.20.11

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Photograph by Alma Shaw MINE, YOURS, WHATEVS: Lite Initiatives' Portia Sinnott hopes to help develop a prototype program for car-sharing.

Borrow a Ride?

The laws are in place for car-sharing programs to thrive in Sonoma County—now all it takes is the will of the drivers

By Leilani Clark

When it comes to perceived inalienable rights in the United States, car ownership and cheap gas are right up there with freedom of speech. And while most cars spend more time parked than being driven, their association with freedom and happiness seems as intractable as Michigan factory steel.

But for Sebastopol resident Portia Sinnott, owning two cars, even one, runs counter to true happiness. The executive director of Lite Initiatives, a group that runs Community Bikes in Santa Rosa and promotes more efficient living, Sinnott practices something she calls "pod-sharing" as part of her car-light lifestyle. "It's based on trust," says Sinnott, who has use of a neighbor's truck when she needs to haul something larger than her compact car can handle. "If everyone is going to yoga across town at the same time, you start asking each other, 'Want a ride?'"

With rising gas prices, concern over environmental hazards and new California insurance laws, car sharing has gone from an eccentricity to mainstream in a few short years. From 1998 to 2010, membership in North American car-sharing programs grew from 905 to 516,000, according to a UC Berkeley study by Susan Shaheen.

Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, says that the county is interested in bringing a car share program to the North Bay, but that applications for funding thus far have been denied.

"We think it's great," Smith says. The Transit Authority even entered into discussions with established car-share companies City CarShare and Zipcar, both based in San Francisco, about bringing their model north. Ultimately, the Sonoma County program stalled after grant funding was denied by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Still, Smith sees car sharing as a viable and smart possibility for the county.

"There are a lot of financial reasons to not own a car, including the cost of insurance, the cost of the car itself and the cost of gas," says Smith. "Multiple-car families could use this to reduce the number of vehicles they have in their personal fleet." Smith believes that such a program might sit well for a community such as Roseland, where studies show that access to a car can be a hurdle for some people.

Mike Romano, an insurance agent from Pacifica, says that insurance is the biggest challenge to building a car-sharing program. "Let's say you have four or five people driving your car, and one of them kills someone," says Romano. "After your insurance is exhausted, they go after the policy owner—you."

But in California, this possibility was mitigated with the January 2011 passing of AB 1871. The new law, the first of its kind in the nation, allows car owners to rent out their cars without having to get livery insurance, the type used by taxicabs. The law stipulates that the money earned must not surpass the amount it costs to own and operate the car.

This law has opened the doors for peer-to-peer car-sharing companies like San Franciscobased Spride, whose founder Sunil Paul was responsible for introducing and lobbying for the law. As opposed to Zipcar, which depends on a fleet of cars owned by the company, Spride facilitates the sharing of cars between neighbors online. The organization handles scheduling and all insurance logistics. Members can lend their own cars for a small fee, and those without cars gain easier access to a vehicle.

Janelle Orsi, an Oakland attorney who specializes in sharing law, says that while companies like Spride have collective buying power when it comes to insurance, drivers shouldn't underestimate the power of starting their own personal vehicle-sharing program instead of waiting for Zipcar to deem their communities worthy.

"There are ways for people to share cars without programs, as long as they are covered by someone's insurance," says Orsi. "You wouldn't want someone to be liable for other people's accidents." Orsi suggests starting the car-sharing program as a nonprofit initiative, to provide a third-party element.

Orsi adds that aside from insurance, the biggest challenge is the administrative technology used to track the whereabouts and mileage of the cars and keep the electronic records required by law. But she sees possibilities for successful car sharing in a place like Sonoma County, especially since AB 1871.

Sinnott agrees, and says that while she will continue to practice "pod-sharing," she will convene a Lite Initiatives meeting in June to discuss implications of the car-sharing bill, and to sort out questions about insurance.

"It would be wonderful," Sinnott says, "because we do a lot of car sharing already. I hope it spreads, and I can imagine creating a pattern or a prototype that other people could replicate. I would prefer that what we do would be more formal."







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