Seattle has never been a great transit town.
We have one light rail line and a decent bus system that is always on the verge of a funding disaster.
Most people in Seattle who can afford a car own one, or two.
A suite of new, intelligent car-sharing and taxi services is changing that—not just in Seattle, but in cities nationwide and around the world.
For years, Seattle has had Zipcar, whose cars sit in designated parking spaces in the more urbanized parts of town.
You reserve a car in advance, and Zipcar charges by the hour, typically about $10/hour.
There’s a one-hour minimum, and you have to return the car to the space where you picked it up. In other words, it’s for round-trips only.
I like Zipcar, and my family has been a member since it debuted in Seattle. But Zipcar is more oriented toward “I need a car” than “I need to get somewhere.”
Once I had to transport a bunch of music equipment, and I reserved a Honda Element from Zipcar. It was much cheaper than renting a car, and held plenty of guitars and amps.
Similarly, a service called RelayRides lets you rent another person’s car by the day.
It’s cheaper and probably more convenient than traditional car rental, but with a one-day minimum, it’s not designed for a quick trip across town.
So I wanted to explore the new universe of easy riding, examining the services that allow you to take a one-way trip, often at a surprisingly cheap price.
They’re making it a lot easier to be carless in Seattle.
Car2Go offers a fleet of Smart Fortwo cars, those tiny two-seaters that are efficient, cramped, and easy to park.
You use your phone to find a nearby car, unlock it with your member card, and go.
You pay 41 cents per minute, plus tax, and can park the car at any legal curbside space with a 2-hour limit or greater.
It’s that last feature that makes Car2Go magic. You don’t have to return the car to the where you picked it up. Just park it, lock it, and forget it.
As Seattle Transit Blog put it, “Car2Go complements a transit-first lifestyle in ways ZipCar doesn’t.”
As you might expect, Car2Go is cheap for short trips and expensive for long ones.
I priced out Car2Go trips from my house to three popular destinations in the Seattle area, using Google Maps’s estimates of travel time.
Northgate Mall (6.3 miles, 15 minutes). Usually a quick trip on Interstate 5. $6.15.
Queen Anne (2.6 miles, 20 minutes). Not far from me, but often brutal traffic. $8.20.
Federal Way (23.6 miles, 33 minutes). I can’t resist the H Mart Korean supermarket. $13.53.
There’s a catch, though. You can’t end a Car2Go trip in a mall parking lot or outside the city of Seattle.
So you’re still on the clock while parked at Northgate or Federal Way. Zipcar would probably be better for those trips.
Lyft, Sidecar, and UberX
These apps all work the same way. You use the app to summon a car, with driver, and tell them where to take you.
It’s like a taxi, but the overall experience is far superior to a yellow cab, and generally no more expensive.
There’s no curbside hailing, and no exchange of cash or plastic: you’re billed through the app.
Tipping is optional and not particularly encouraged.
I love these services. The drivers are friendly and professional, and the cars are clean and modern.
You never have to wonder how long until your car arrives, because the app shows you exactly where your driver is and their estimated arrival time.
Lyft and UberX have the same pricing model: a $1 drop fee, a per-mile and per-minute charge, and an overall minimum trip charge ($5 for Lyft, $6 for UberX).
Sidecar guarantees a price at the beginning of the trip, so even if you get stuck in traffic, you won’t pay extra. However, in my experience, Sidecar is a little more expensive on average.
If you download any of these apps, download them all.
They typically offer generous first-ride discounts and referral bonuses: get a friend to try one, and you get a coupon.
Here are the estimated prices for my three trips:
|Northgate||Queen Anne||Federal Way|
Prices may be different in your city or at another time of day, of course.
(Incidentally, if you own a recent-model car, you might be able to make extra cash by becoming a driver for one or more of these services.)
Hey, that sounds expensive
It does, doesn’t it? Fifty-five bucks for a one-way trip to the Palace of Kimchi?
All of these services seem expensive until you compare them to the price and hassle of owning a car.
The price of an Car2Go or Lyft trip includes gas, insurance, maintenance, depreciation, and license fees. And you don’t have to pay to park it.
Obviously, you wouldn’t use any of these services for a daily commute or a weekend camping trip.
But I’ve done the math on the total cost of car ownership, and these rates are highly competitive.
You’d have to drive a Car2Go fifteen hours a month to surpass the cost of a modest used car.
And part of the technology involved in all of these services is behind-the-scenes work to make sure a car is always nearby when you need one.
Furthermore, these ride services integrate well with other ways of getting around town, like foot, bus, and bike.
And Seattle is getting a bike-sharing system this fall, joining dozens of other cities around the world. Just one more way to get around town while letting someone else worry about breakdowns.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.