Thursday, January 8, 2009

Chicago - Talk with Richard Kosmacher

Automobiles aren't the problem with cities, they're just the wrong solution to the problem of mobility. When they were first introduced, their vast advantages over the horse and carriage/wagon were only matched by their enormous cost. An early question must have certainly been posed: how can we share this resource effectively? In New York, the only American city with a large swath almost totally dependent on shared cars, the answer was the privately owned and operated taxi. The expense of the car is shared by many users and though the cost of the automobiles themselves have declined, in places like Manhattan, the cost of parking makes ownership totally impractical.

It turns out there are other, more socialistic ways to share cars. Take out the driver, jumble around some other details and the taxi service becomes a car-share. Successful car-sharing was pioneered in Europe in the 1980s the most wide-spread American flavor is the for-profit Zipcar however, several city scale operations exist throughout the country, many of them non-profits. One of those is Chicago-basedI-GO Car Sharing, brainchild of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. They've had a very exciting week and I was lucky enough to speak with Richard Kosmacher, the Business Development Manager at I-GO.

First a bit about I-GO itself. They maintain a strong collaboration with their parent organization, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a true pioneer in urban sustainability movement. Both organizations are located in an amazing LEED Retrofit Platinum building in Chicago's North Side, one of one two Platinum buildings in the city. I-GO is a non-profit and fills its small operational shortfall with grants and DOT highway funds.

The group has 13,000 members and 200 cars scattered throughout the city. The cars have dedicated spots and members have cards that they can use to unlock and rent them. Members pay a low yearly fee and a flat hourly rate, under $10/hour. Gas, insurance, maintenance and cleaning are all done by I-GO.

According to surveys, half of the group's members either gave up a car when they joined the program or decided not to buy a new one. Studies have shown that each car that I-GO puts on the road replaces 17 private cars. Individuals most likely to use the program live near dedicated I-GO parking spots. These spots are located in neighborhoods that are dense, close to public transit and have a lack of parking.

Last Tuesday, they unveiled a pilot program with the Chicago Transit Authority to bundle the usual train and bus passes with an I-GO card. The program is the culmination of over a year of collaboration between the CTA and I-GO and has generated an enormous amount of interest.

According to Richard, for people who live near an I-GO car, the economics of car sharing make it an obvious solution. The average car owner in America spends about $8,000 a year on their car, or 17% of household income. Someone using a car sharing service may spend about $1,000 on public transit, $1,000 on car share fees and around $500 on taxi and rental car service. In all, the saving can exceed $5,000 a year.

Car sharing is such a good solution to the collateral damage that car-usefulness causes. Businesses and individuals can maintain their mobility at a reasonable price in cities whose public transit leaves a bit to be desired. The reduction in the total volume of cars would theoretically devalue parking. Surface lots could be re-purposed, parking lanes could become bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Garages could become shops or yards and since auto use would be totally pay per time, people would avoid using their shared cars as much as possible. Fewer cars reduces congestion which allows those using cars and trucks to use them more effectively and reduce trip time.

For places that that are too sparse or poorly thought out to allow for public transit only, car-sharing fills a necessary mobility gap. If you think you might be able to abandon your car, check out this list to see if a car-sharing operation has sprouted up in your city.


  1. Why is this not on EVERY FRONT PAGE of every newspaper? And a program in every city! It is a GREAT IDEA.

  2. A minor point in an important bit of news: I highly doubt "the average American" spends $8,000 per year on car ownership. If the source of the $8,000 is AAA - then it refers only to the cost of NEW car ownership.

  3. As of 2007, the average transporation costs for americans was $8,758 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Naturally, the cost of car ownership varies a great deal based on what car(s) you operate, or how you get to work, but $8,758 is the average.

    Consumer Reports did a good study on auto spending and cost of ownership, you can find it here:

    And here is the BLS printout: