Car2Go, a subsidiary of Daimler AG, entered Portland relatively quietly in March 2012, but the sudden preponderance of matching white-and-blue Car2Go-labeled Daimler Smart Cars were difficult to miss. As of December 2012, the car sharing company boasts a fleet of more than 300 vehicles, with 30 electric cars among them.
While Car2Go resembles other car sharing services, such as Zipcar, by including gas in the rental charge, there are three things that differentiate Car2Go's model from existing car sharing businesses and car rental companies as well.
- No designated parking spots. When you want to grab a car, you can either use your chipped membership card to open up any available vehicles you come across within the Portland "home" area, or you can use your computer or smart phone app to find the Car2Go vehicle that's closest to you, reserve it and follow the map until you get to it. And when you're finished with the vehicle, just leave it in a legal street spot and you're done.
- Round trips not required! This is perhaps the biggest differentiator, and the coolest feature of Car2Go. One-way trips are where Car2Go really shines -- and becomes a value. You can park anywhere within the Portland "home" area and complete your rental. Not only can you park on any city street, but due to an arrangement that Car2Go has with the city of Portland, you don't even need to feed parking meters -- just find a legal spot that allows parking for 30 minutes or longer. You don't need to pay for the time that the car's parked -- in fact, it's likely someone else will grab it fairly quickly. When you're ready for a return trip, just find another Car2Go and initiate a new rental.
- Pay by the minute. Planning a short trip? Car2Go in Portland charges .38 per minute, with a one-hour maximum of $13.99. A daily rate tops out at $72.99, with a charge for over 150 miles per rental. By comparison, Zipcar charges start at $8 per hour in Portland and has a daily rate of $72 -- but cars need to be returned where they were picked up.
Lessen Your Car -- and Carbon -- Load
Portland is Bike City USA, and there's also decent public transportation. Those elements make it easier for folks to either go car-free, or to do things like share one car per family. Access to Car2Go vehicles can make that decision an even easier one. When it's pouring rain, or you need to lug more than you can handle on your bike, grab a car. Car2Go does not offer a do-it-all solution -- the vehicles are small, the rates for more than short trips too high -- but they can be used very effectively in combination with other resources, such as mass transit and services like Zipcar and traditional car rentals.
Another way to reduce your carbon footprint comes with the car itself: an app on the in-dash screen calculates your "EcoScore" on the fly based on your driving habits. Accelerate smoothly and gradually and avoid stop and go traffic, for starters.
"Based on surveys of our members, they're using public transit and they're biking even more because they can rely on something like Car2go," company spokesperson Katie Stafford told me.
The Drive and the Experience
On screen instructions guide you through the user-friendly process to get started and to terminate your journeys. There's a built-in navigation system, as well as a voice that comes on that tells you information such as when you're leaving Car2Go's home area.
The Smart Car itself is extremely easy to drive and, as you may expect from something so small, quite peppy. The gearing on the automatic shift system feels low, and I would feel two shifts and be in third gear seemingly within a few feet of leaving a stop sign. The car almost has the sensation of a standard transmission -- there's a noticeable lag between gears, and the car will even roll backwards when pointed uphill without pressure on the brake.
Otherwise, it's a fun, responsive car, and it's cool that every car you rent is basically the same -- no learning new quirks with each use. Of course it's small, but it seemed smaller from the outside than when I was actually out driving.
I used the car quite a bit while my father was in town visiting. One day we drove in to the West End area, ran some errands there, proceeded to the Pearl, then hoofed it up to Northwest 23rd. When we'd had enough, we grabbed another car there and headed home -- no round-trip walking necessary, either.
- Ideal for one-way trips. Not having to return a vehicle, or to pay for parking meters and the time you spend outside of the car is the best feature of Car2Go. Drive to one part of the city, walk around a whole bunch, then grab public transit or another Car2Go vehicle wherever you are when you're done -- that's spectacular.
- A great city car. Smart Cars are tiny, and it's pretty easy to find a parking spot that fits.
- Getting electric. The Car2Go Portland electric fleet lets members experiment with what it's like to drive and to charge an electric vehicle. As Stafford told me, "Many of our members have let us know that they really appreciate the opportunity to try out electric cars -- many of them have never driven them, and they have no experience with charging them."
- No late fees for returns
- Use Car2Go in other participating US cities -- currently including Seattle, Vancouver BC, San Diego, Washington DC and Miami.
- Pets must be in pet crates to ride in a Car2Go vehicle. If you have a small pet, and/or there's regularly an available car right in front of your house, it's no biggie. But if you have to lug a huge pet carrier -- and your pet!-- for blocks, it's not practical. Many larger carriers also won't fit in the back of the Smart Car.
- No Bicycles? According to Car2Go, due to insurance liability reasons, no racks can be added to the vehicles. That means if your bike breaks down, you can't find a Car2Go to bail you out -- which would otherwise a perfect use. Cyclists might be able to remove a bike's wheels, fold down the car's front seat and cram it in -- but if you get grease on the upholstery, you might be held responsible.
- Limited Vehicles: Get any car you like, as long as it's a Smart Car. There's room for two, and some trunk space for a small load -- but little else. Don't plan to use Car2Go for lumberyard runs.
- Expensive for long-term use or drives above 150 miles. $72.99 per day is two to three times more than typical rental rates -- and the included gas doesn't make enough of a dent. And the .45 per mile charge over 150 miles adds up quickly.
- Reservations for a specific vehicle can only be made a half-hour before you want it (although you can reserve the nearest car to you 24 hours in advance).
Car2Go memberships involve a $35 start-up fee, although there are frequent specials that reduce or waive this amount. New users can register in person at the Car2Go office in the Pearl District during First Thursdays, for example.
More info: car2go.com