General Motors launched its Maven car-sharing service in Baltimore on Wednesday with a fleet of 40 Chevrolets and GMCs that can be rented at 20 locations in the city.
The service, already available in more than a dozen cities including Washington and New York, uses a mobile application to display the make, model and pricing of the available cars at lots around the city. Users submit a credit card and driver's license information, and the app uses Bluetooth to let them unlock and start the reserved cars.
GM's Maven service joins a crowded car-sharing economy on the streets of Baltimore. It will compete with traditional car-rental companies, taxis, ride-share companies Uber and Lyft, and other car-sharing operations such as Zipcar and Turo.
But the interest of General Motors, which has long relied solely on car sales, in the sharing economy reflects changing attitudes among consumers, particularly in urban areas, observers said.
Baltimore's growing population of young people and its notorious lack of parking make it a prime market, said Scott Hall, general manager for Maven's Greater Washington/Baltimore area, who lives in Oella.
"Being in Baltimore, you know how hard it is to park in so many neighborhoods," he said. "And with millennials, we've seen the desire less for car ownership and more for experiences."
Because of the city's parking problems, Maven's Baltimore fleet is heavy on Chevy Cruzes, compact sedans and hatchbacks that are the smallest and least expensive — $8 per hour; $80 per day — vehicles the service offers, Hall said.
Vehicles may be rented by the hour or day. There are no membership or application fees, and gas and insurance are included.
The service also offers Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedans as well as Chevy Tahoe and GMC Acadia sport utility vehicles.
The vehicles will be available at lots in Mount Vernon, Fells Point, Federal Hill, Station North, Bolton Hill, the Inner Harbor and near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. Users must return the vehicles to the location where they picked them up.
Maven aims to place its cars near emerging developments that draw people who want to save money by opting out of car ownership, Hall said. .
Barbara Hairston, a research consultant who lives in Fells Point, sold her Mercedes when she moved to the city from Pasadena in 2014. She works from home, and either walks or uses Zipcar, Uber or Lyft to run errands or get to appointments.
The idea of Maven's app-centered service — unlocking and starting the car with her phone — intrigued Hairston, who said it was""the same sort of behavior mode as Uber," just a tap on a phone.
Car-share's appeal, Hairston said, lies in the flexibility of having a car available without the obligations of monthly payments or servicing it.
"It's like having a cute little baby on your lap, until they throw up on you, then you give them back," she said.
Andrew Farkas, director of the Urban Mobility and Equity Center at Morgan State University, said the emerging ride- and car-sharing firms are stepping in where traditional transit has fallen short.
Gov. Larry Hogan canceled in 2015 the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail that would have run east-west across Baltimore, and the Maryland Transit Administration is engineering a $135 million overhaul of its long-maligned local bus system, which the governor himself dubbed "abysmal."
"The transit systems in Baltimore are not well coordinated," Farkas said. "There is only so much you can do with the bus network, and when your rail systems are as disjointed as they are, it makes sense that car-sharing has a market."
The appeal is also apparent for young professionals who don't own a car but need one occasionally for shopping or other chores, said Kerry Tan, an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business.
"If you're fresh out of college and live in Fed [Hill] or Fells and you just need a car for a day, something like Maven would be really useful," Tan said.
It's a niche the membership-based Zipcar already targets under a 2010 deal with the city that gives it reserved spots, with a goal of alleviating parking headaches and reducing carbon emissions.
Zipcar offers 250 cars, including 60 different makes and models, at dozens of locations around Baltimore. Its rental rates range from $8 to $10 an hour for such cars as Volkswagen Golfs, Honda Fits and Ford Focuses, after a membership fee of $7 a month or $70 a year.
Zipcar believes car-sharing, not ownership, is the future of transportation, spokeswoman Katelyn Chesley said.
"It's validating that more and more companies are recognizing the value of sharing vehicles," Chesley said.
While smaller in scale, GM's Maven doesn't require users to pay a fee. That might be because GM sees another opportunity in it.
Auto manufacturers have been watching the ride- and car-sharing economies, Tan said, and GM's move likely is aimed at getting young people who don't own cars behind the wheel of its vehicles. Such short-term rentals can become test drives for potential car buyers.
"I totally see this as a play toward attracting the millennial consumer base," he said. "This will help allow young professionals to get away with not owning a car in the first place. That's what these car manufacturers are concerned about. This might be their play to kind of counter that."