Baltimore parking officials expect to launch a new car-sharing program in the coming months that will allow drivers to take one-way trips and drop the vehicles off at any metered spots or public parking spaces in the city.
The program — modeled after those in Denver and the District of Columbia — is designed to ease congestion and parking woes in crowded neighborhoods, according to Peter Little, head of the Baltimore City Parking Authority.
City officials estimate that for every car made available through the ride share, there will be 15 fewer privately owned cars on Baltimore streets.
"For residents who don't want to own a car or can't afford one or would like to own fewer cars, this gives them another option," Little said. "You won't solve parking problems in these neighborhoods — where there is too much demand and too little supply — by focusing on how to accommodate more cars."
Drivers in the Baltimore-Washington region face congested roadways and some of the longest commutes in the nation, often made longer by extended searches for parking spaces.
The new Baltimore program would build on the popularity of other ride-sharing options. Little said it would work as a complement to Zipcar, which has 225 vehicles for rent in Baltimore that users must pick up and drop off at the same location.
The Parking Authority wants to select a vendor to provide 200 vehicles, likely compact cars, sometime next year. Users would rent the car online and pay by the minute. The cars could be driven anywhere, but must be dropped off within city limits.
Some residents worry the plan could backfire.
Bob Merbler, a Federal Hill resident who is chairman of the neighborhood association's parking committee, said residents in the trendy South Baltimore community already must circle their blocks several times to find parking. He worries that adding more vehicles to residential streets would only compound the problem.
"Conceptually, it's a wonderful idea, but this doesn't take a car off the street unless I decide I don't need a car anymore," said Merbler, who works in real estate. "We fight for each individual space."
Others disagree. Charles Village resident Patrick McMahon said the program would build on transportation options that can help convince residents to give up their vehicles. McMahon said he and his wife ditched their 1993 Saab when Zipcar launched in Baltimore about five years ago, but kept their Toyota minivan to haul their children.
"I live in a rowhouse neighborhood where houses are 141/2 foot wide, and our car is longer than that," said McMahon, a transportation planner. "Mathematically, it doesn't work for everyone in our neighborhood to have a car, let alone multiple cars."
Emily Scarr, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization, said programs that encourage people to give up their cars are good for the environment, public health and economy.
"Americans are driving less, and millennials are driving that trend," said Scarr, who lives in the city's Remington neighborhood. "They're looking for places to live that allow them to live car-free. People are wanting more of these options, not less."
Susan Shaheen, a co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said the "shared mobility" trend — which includes cars, bicycles, shuttles and services such as Uber — is growing rapidly.
"What we're witnessing is happening far faster than anyone predicted," she said. "Transportation that hasn't changed much in 100 years has the potential to change dramatically. We have the opportunity to rethink the role of the automobile."
The center's research on round-trip car-sharing has shown a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and a monthly savings of $154 to $435 per person. Shaheen is working on a new study that will be released early next year on the effect of cars that can be rented for one-way trips.
Shaheen said technology, including smartphones, is fueling market growth. But, she said, to compete with the convenience of owning a car, alternative modes of transportation must be consistent, flexible and reliable.
Little pointed to the success of the one-way car-sharing program in Washington, operated by car2go. Surveys by the company show 25 percent of their members there did not buy a car, and because of the program, 600 fewer vehicles were on the street.
Car2go operates programs across North America, including New York City, Toronto and Denver. The company charges 41 cents per minute with rates capped at $14.99 an hour. It has an initial $35 sign-up fee.
Sam Zimbabwe, a sustainability planner for Washington's transportation department, said the district started with 200 Smart cars in the car2go fleet four years ago, and now has 700 permitted to park in public spaces.
People use single-trip car sharing to get to train stations and other public transportation options, or to commute to work one way and take mass transit the other way, depending on what's convenient for their schedules.
In Baltimore, Little said, the new car-sharing program won't cost the city any money to operate. The company selected will pay an estimated $1,500 to $2,500 per car for a special permit that allows the cars to be parked in any residential area or metered spot.
The company will be required to ensure the cars are moved every 12 hours and that a portion are parked each morning in the city's designated food deserts, or places where there are few grocery stores and residents have few options for travel.
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And Zipcar now has 10,000 members in the city. According to the parking authority, the city's partnership with Zipcar has helped to keep 3,000 cars off the road, and it would have cost $75 million to build a garage to park all those cars.
The parking authority will be holding meetings in the coming weeks with neighborhood and business groups and other stakeholders to discuss the new program and get feedback, Little said.
"We have to focus on ways to reduce parking demand," he said. "Car-sharing is one of the proven ways to do that."