Borrow a Ride?

The laws are in place for car-sharing programs to thrive in Sonoma County—now all it takes is the will of the drivers


When it comes to perceived inalienable rights in the United States, car ownership and cheap gas are right up there with freedom of speech. And while most cars spend more time parked than being driven, their association with freedom and happiness seems as intractable as Michigan factory steel.

But for Sebastopol resident Portia Sinnott, owning two cars, even one, runs counter to true happiness. The executive director of Lite Initiatives, a group that runs Community Bikes in Santa Rosa and promotes more efficient living, Sinnott practices something she calls “pod-sharing” as part of her car-light lifestyle. “It’s based on trust,” says Sinnott, who has use of a neighbor’s truck when she needs to haul something larger than her compact car can handle. “If everyone is going to yoga across town at the same time, you start asking each other, ‘Want a ride?'”

With rising gas prices, concern over environmental hazards and new California insurance laws, car sharing has gone from an eccentricity to mainstream in a few short years. From 1998 to 2010, membership in North American car-sharing programs grew from 905 to 516,000, according to a UC Berkeley study by Susan Shaheen.

Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, says that the county is interested in bringing a car share program to the North Bay, but that applications for funding thus far have been denied.

“We think it’s great,” Smith says. The Transit Authority even entered into discussions with established car-share companies City CarShare and Zipcar, both based in San Francisco, about bringing their model north. Ultimately, the Sonoma County program stalled after grant funding was denied by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Still, Smith sees car sharing as a viable and smart possibility for the county.

“There are a lot of financial reasons to not own a car, including the cost of insurance, the cost of the car itself and the cost of gas,” says Smith. “Multiple-car families could use this to reduce the number of vehicles they have in their personal fleet.” Smith believes that such a program might sit well for a community such as Roseland, where studies show that access to a car can be a hurdle for some people.

Mike Romano, an insurance agent from Pacifica, says that insurance is the biggest challenge to building a car-sharing program. “Let’s say you have four or five people driving your car, and one of them kills someone,” says Romano. “After your insurance is exhausted, they go after the policy owner—you.”

But in California, this possibility was mitigated with the January 2011 passing of AB 1871. The new law, the first of its kind in the nation, allows car owners to rent out their cars without having to get livery insurance, the type used by taxicabs. The law stipulates that the money earned must not surpass the amount it costs to own and operate the car.

This law has opened the doors for peer-to-peer car-sharing companies like San