Hertz On Demand parking spots reserved in a LAZ Parking lot across from the Weston Centre. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Hertz On Demand parking spots reserved in a LAZ Parking lot across from the Weston Centre. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Did you know we have a carshare program in San Antonio? No – not the “rideshare” transportation network companies with the pink mustaches and cease and desist orders.

Carshare programs are different as the user/customer drives themselves. Vehicles are available to rent for a few hours at a time when errands demand your presence outside the center city. Rental cars are strategically placed downtown close to offices and housing intended for use by those who subscribe to the “live, work, and play” mantra of the Decade of Downtown.

A Hertz On Demand customer scans his keychain on the window of a rental car in downtown San Antonio. Courtesy photo.
A Hertz On Demand customer scans his key chain on the window of a rental car in downtown San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

When you sign up for the service, users are sent a key ring security pass (after entering your driver’s license information and confirmation photo) that is used to lock and unlock cars. This usage data is stored and your debit/credit card is charged by the hour – so returning the car to its designated spot before the top of the hour is key.

If you’ve never heard of it, you’re certainly not alone. The program hasn’t been well publicized or used much outside of City staff since its launch in 2012. The Hertz 24/7 On Demand hourly car rental service will end on Aug. 13 as per the agreement between the City and the national rental car company.

“Hertz has enjoyed an amiable relationship with the City of San Antonio since beginning services; however in evaluating our business model as well as the needs of the city, we determined that continuing to provide on demand services at this time was not a viable option,” Hertz Public Affairs Manager Paula Rivera stated in an email to the Rivard Report. “Hertz will, however, continue to provide service to residents and visitors of San Antonio through mid-August.”

According to local residents who rent the cars on a regular basis, the service has been in decline since mid-June. Out of 10 original locations, the only location that has cars available on the www.Hertz247.com website and mobile app is a parking lot near the Weston Centre. This location has two cars parked and ready for hourly rental. Currently, only five locations even display on the Hertz availability map. There have been continual “booking conflicts” and unavailability for the rest of the locations all month.

The Hertz 24/7 vehicle map for downtown San Antonio.
Screenshot of the Hertz 24/7 vehicle map for downtown San Antonio.

The Office of Sustainability manages the City’s relationship with Hertz, and is currently searching for another car share option to implement before or shortly after Aug. 13.

“We’ll be going to Council with a new option before (mid) August,” said Douglas Melnick, director of the Office of Sustainability.

As City Council takes its July holiday – coming back only to select an interim mayor on July 22 – it will certainly be a close call to ensure a smooth transition to a new program.

A request for usage statistics from Hertz was not answered. Melnick said the program is used regularly by City staff, a popular choice for some workers for running errands outside the urban core.

Carshare can fill a gap that bike share, rideshare/taxis, and bus transit leave for many residents who don’t have a car. Instead of lugging a limited amount of groceries on a bike or bus, carshare allows for that one big trip to the store to grab necessities or larger items without having to call and wait for a taxi (or a currently-illegal Lyft or Uber).  Some errands simply cannot be checked off the list without venturing out of the center city – the Rivercenter Mall only has so many stores to shop at, and some specialists can only be found in the Medical Center.

A Hertz On Demand carshare key. Courtesy photo.
A Hertz On Demand carshare key. Courtesy photo.

For downtown residents tired of paying for parking, insurance, registration, and maintenance costs for a car they barely use, carshare seems to be one of the final pieces of the alternative transit puzzle – a piece that could lead to residents being able to sell their cars and never look back. The money saved is easily greater than the $7-12 per hour carshare rates – provided you aren’t renting for several hours everyday. B-cycle membership is $60 a year ($5 per month) and a VIA pass is $20 per month.

Hertz management evidently decided there were not enough users or the rates being charged weren’t sufficient to justify the program.

Would downtown carshare have been more successful had the City and Hertz marketed it more aggressively? Will the new program include an awareness strategy? Does downtown have enough density to sustain a carshare program?

“(Hertz) doesn’t have the same marketing approach as some other carshare operators,” Melnick said. “Hertz has a more subtle approach … the awareness of the program really never got out there … (ridership) never got to where they had wanted.”

In terms of finding that second phase operator, the City is looking to find that right group or operator that will market the program well, Melnick said. The Office of Sustainability should also play a larger role in program awareness.

Rental car companies that have carshare programs, including EnterpriseCar2Go and Zipcar, are on the list of possible replacements. They operate essentially the same way as Hertz On Demand does (or did).  There already are two Zipcars in San Antonio, but they are parked at the airport for usage from there. Like Hertz, cars need to be returned to the same spot they were taken from.

Screenshot from www.car2go.com
Screenshot from www.car2go.com

Car2Go, however, allows for one-way trips. You can leave the car parked (almost) anywhere because either another user will pick it up or Car2Go employees will go grab it. The downside: no variation in the make/model of rental vehicles – all Smart ForTwo minicars. The disadvantages to only having small – er, tiny – vehicles available are not hard to imagine, but the company has enjoyed sustained success in larger cities like Seattle.  A report released in March 2014 from the Seattle Department of Transportation revealed that almost 40 percent of Car2Go members, who are concentrated downtown, have given up a car or are thinking about doing so.

Just like the term “rideshare,” calling it a “carshare” program is a bit of a misnomer. Rideshare is not technically “sharing a ride” – it’s a taxi with a mobile application. Carshare is not technically “sharing a car,” it’s renting a car on an hourly basis. Just as with rideshare applications Lyft and Uber, the carshare industry has seen its own controversy with mobile applications like RelayRides (recently purchased by General Motors), JustShareIt, or Getaround which allow for peer-to-peer car rentals. Basically, you could pay your neighbor to rent their car for an hour or a day.

Then there is the option of waiting for these companies to come here, on their own, without any sort of agreement/contract with the City. Hertz agreed to open their program in San Antonio because the City provided an easy, non-competitive customer base – but it’s possible that such enticements are not yet enough.

Companies will come here without inducements once they believe San Antonio is a viable market. In the meantime, a city with urban core ambitions should work to keep all forms of alternative transportation.

*Featured/top image: Hertz On Demand parking spots reserved in a LAZ Parking lot across from the Weston Centre. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org