On a chilly gray February morning, driver Tony Moreno pulled a white hatchback into a curbside parking space reserved especially for it on a cramped East Hollywood side street in Los Angeles. He hopped out, grabbed a cord from a dedicated electric charge point on the sidewalk and plugged it into the car.
Like nearly every neighborhood in car-loving L.A., street parking is at a premium in this run-down pocket of the city. Angelenos who have cars vie for parking the way racehorses head for the finish line.
The electric car and four others lined up in front of it are part of a public-private partnership between the City of Los Angeles and the car share company BlueLA. They are meant to bring zero-tailpipe-emission mobility options to underserved communities.
Moreno, also a public transportation user, said he uses a BlueLA car about once a week to run errands. The same transit access pass, or TAP card, that riders use for subways and buses in the region links to his car share account.
"It's very easy," he said. "You just you get your TAP card, go to the main kiosk, you tap in your code. That'll take maybe 20 seconds. And then you come to your designated car. You tap your card again on the port, and you're off and running. It'll take about 40 seconds for the whole process to get the car."
The program started nearly a year ago as a pilot project between the L.A. Department of Transportation and Blue Systems, BlueLA's parent company. It was funded in part by a $1.7 million grant from California's cap-and-trade revenues. One of the grant requirements mandated that the program has to operate in some of the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods as defined by state data – those most affected by pollution as well as socio-economic inequality.
Under Mayor Eric Garcetti's direction, electrification of transportation has become a priority for the city. But Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer at L.A. DOT, said that given the still small number of BlueLA cars, the project is not just about going green.
"I think this program is more than just a [greenhouse gas] reduction policy," Porras said. "It is really also a mobility opportunity program which we see as unlocking economic opportunity for stakeholders."
Stakeholders include residents of Westlake and MacArthur Park west of downtown L.A. These are immigrant neighborhoods where many do not own a car. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the station near MacArthur Park was empty. All its cars were in use.
Owning a car can be a heavy economic burden for some. A 2003 study from the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that the poorest 20 percent of Americans spent almost half of their income on transportation including private vehicle ownership. The wealthiest 20 percent spent a little more than a tenth.
This particular program has a pricing tier for low-income qualifying users.
Porras said the project also creates "a redundancy to the existing transit investment that the city and that region has made." The DOT sees the plan as both a backup and a complement to its existing bus, rail, and bike share systems.
While city departments are concerned with giving people more ways to get to work and strengthen their own economies, the car share industry is an economic driver in itself. The authors of a recent report from Berkley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center wrote the car-sharing market in the United States amounts to $23 billion and is steadily growing. There are about two million members of car share programs nationwide.
BlueLA has more than 2,000 members. The company's 116 cars are spread across 21 stations from East Hollywood to Downtown L.A. with several more under construction and plans to expand the network further after its successful pilot phase.
"We support this project, we're totally embracing it and our plan is to make it way bigger," Christophe Arnaud, the company's managing director, said. "We are talking about … multiply[ing] the number of cars by three. That is our plan. It's being discussed right now with the city and hopefully we will have some good news in a few months … so really, if we can go and cover the different universities, airport and go up to the sea that's what we have in mind for sure."
Going to the sea will bring BlueLA into direct competition with Waive, another car share company that operates primarily on the Westside of Los Angeles. But no matter which provider is used, a shared vehicle is in service up to three times as much as a privately owned car, according to the Berkley report. Arnaud estimated that for every BlueLA car on the road, seven to 10 others are eliminated.
The report also said that there is no discernible difference overall in public transportation use in areas that offer car sharing as an alternative. In some cases, usage decreased, but in others it increased, the authors found.
Both Arnaud and Porras acknowledged that a couple of hundred electric cars are not going to solve every problem. Arnaud is also an advocate of zero-emission zones that restrict vehicles that are not electric or charge them to enter, like in London where Blue Systems also operates. Regionally, Los Angeles is working on other no-emission micro-transit options to link with car sharing like the county's relatively new Metro Bike Share program and electric scooter providers.
Those options are already highly visible in L.A. and popular with the next generation of would-be drivers. Back at the East Hollywood station, high school students Anahi Gomez and Javier Gurrola eyed the row of BlueLA cars in their neighborhood. Gomez is 16 and working to get her learner's permit.
"That's really cool," she said. "That's really convenient actually. It's like the Birds [scooters] right now but in car form. It's literally what it is."
Both teens said they would be interested in giving car sharing a try when the time comes. BlueLA drivers must be 18 with a valid license.
With expansion in mind, the company is working to smooth out some kinks. With all of the charge points at the East Hollywood station in use, a woman in a Blue car had to turn away. There is another station a few blocks down the street, and users can drop the cars off at any station. An operations team works to keep the vehicles evenly distributed to avoid that kind of situation.
Tony Moreno said he has been using the service for about seven months and the only drawback he sees is that the cars need to be cleaned more often.
"They're dirty, they don't keep it up fast enough. They all need vacuuming every time I come to rent one," he said. Otherwise, "I love the car, I love the ride, the smoothness of the ride. And of course, I love not putting gas in the car."