No car? You can rent one of 150 from a local nonprofit

Photo by Henry Pan An Hourcar is parked at a municipal parking lot in Austin, MN.

For more than 15 years, a local nonprofit called Hourcar has been working to make cars available and affordable for people in the Twin Cities and Rochester, so that anyone who needs to drive won’t have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, to buy their own. 

It works by having 50 vehicles—most of which are Honda Fit hatchbacks, although they have some trucks and SUVs—parked in parking lots and ramps in Minneapolis and St. Paul, ready to go when a member unlocks them with their phone or Metro Transit’s Go-To card. 

“We wanted people to be able to live well in our mid-sized cities without the burdens of car ownership,” said Mary Morse Marti, who helped found the program during her time as executive director of St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Center.

 “We wanted to create household wealth, especially for people who worked for low-wage employers. We wanted the streets to be safer and the air cleaner. And we wanted to create more customers for our growing transit system,” said Marti.

This concept, broadened by the internet, built upon an informal model employed by neighbors who came together to buy their own cars to share, keeping tabs in a paper notebook on who used it. “The internet made dispersed carsharing possible at scale. Everyone could ‘see’ the cars and make reservations online,” said Marti. 

Photo by Henry Pan “We seek to provide access, rather than extracting resources, from the community,” said Shannon Crabtree, Hourcar senior planner

Although Hourcar says they are growing in membership and usage, they declined to release any information on their privacy policy. Nonetheless, they are expanding their program with the launch of Evie Carshare, which allows people to rent and drive one of 100 Chevrolet Bolt electric cars from one point and leave it behind at another. 

The program was developed with the City of St. Paul in their efforts to increase access to electric vehicles and chargers in low-income communities of color. They also began partnering with managers of certain apartment complexes to stage vehicles that can be rented whenever their residents need it. 

Hourcar has helped users like Patrick Sharkey, a Minneapolis resident, decide to get rid of his car. Sharkey and his partner had already bought two e-bikes late last year and realized they were not using their car since moving to Minneapolis from the suburbs in 2013. 

“We would use the car maybe once or twice a week just for longer trips, and we have a family cabin up north where we like to go, so we kind of justified it for that,” said Sharkey. “But it’s like, we can save roughly 450 bucks a month to get rid of a car that really would just sit in our garage most of the time.”

Indeed, being a member of Hourcar is cheaper than owning your own car, let alone renting one from a rental agency. Memberships cost anywhere from $0 to $30. People who make 50% of the area median income or less—$52,450 for a family of four—can obtain monthly memberships for a dollar through their Access Plus program, which was launched last November. 

All plans include gas, insurance, and the ability to rent one of their vehicles—including their Subarus, which are equipped with parking passes for Minnesota state parks—for up to 72 hours for a separate fee that, excluding the Access Plus membership, gets cheaper the more one pays for membership. 

It’s unclear how Hourcar can afford this and if it’s been made harder because of the pandemic. For 2019, the most recent year information filed with the Internal Revenue Service was available, they generated just over a million dollars in revenue, with 60%  coming from user and membership fees. 

But Hourcar says turning a profit is not what they want to achieve at the end of the day. “We seek to provide access, rather than extracting resources, from the community,” said senior planner Shannon Crabtree, explaining that they are able to keep rates low because they don’t operate like car rental agencies that tend to buy as many cars as they can to rent and then selling them as soon as they can. 

To use an Hourcar one needs to be an approved member: at least 18 years old, driving with at least a provisional license for at least a year, not had any major violations such as driving recklessly or without a valid license for the past three years, and not had any drug or alcohol violations over the past seven years. 

Who else uses the program, and who benefits from it, is unclear. Hourcar recently conducted a voluntary census; about half of the membership who responded to the survey identified as White, and around 42% of users who responded earned less than $50,000 per year. 

Only 3% of Hourcar users identified in the voluntary census were Black. Hourcar declined to disclose any data on how many users they have or how they use the program, citing their privacy policy. 

Hourcar acknowledges accessing the service is a problem. The vehicles are not configured for someone unable to use their legs to drive, for example. People who do not understand English might not be able to use Hourcar because it is not accessible in any language other than English. 

Cars can also be far to get to. Hourcars can be found throughout Downtown, South and Southeast Minneapolis, as well as in Downtown St. Paul, Midway and Rondo. But neither Hourcars nor their electric car fleets can be found deep into North Minneapolis or the East Side of St. Paul, where Blacks, Asians, and low-income households make up a majority of the population. 

Hourcar says this is because those neighborhoods have more space for cars than they do transit service. “Carshare is only truly successful in more dense areas that provide a variety of transit options for connectivity,” said Crabtree. 

“Many of the neighborhoods mentioned in your question [North Minneapolis, Eastside St. Paul, St. Paul’s North End, or far South Minneapolis] are heavily car-centric with higher car ownership per household, comprised largely of single-family households, and often providing one to two off-street parking spaces for each residence. 

“We know that transit doesn’t go everywhere. Walking long distances isn’t feasible for most people, and ride-hailing services get expensive quickly,” added Crabtree.

People might also have a hard time with the concept of renting a car. “Owning a car is often viewed as a larger part of the American Dream, so I think many people would rather own a car than relying on other modes,” said Crabtree. 

“We are interested in changing minds and habits, and we know that is challenging. However, we also know that car ownership is out of reach for many people, and furthermore less desirable for others.” 

Disclosure: the author is an HourCar member and has used the service to cover assignments for the Spokesman-Recorder.