Car-sharing companies like Zipcar, Maven, Getaround and Gig have peppered Bay Area communities with on-demand vehicles for short-term rentals, but many of those companies — and their vehicles — are in still in short supply in low-income neighborhoods.
That’s what makes a recent grant from the California Energy Commission unique. The state agency awarded Los Angeles-based Envoy Technologies $1.5 million to install charging stations and shared electric vehicles in Bay Area and Sacramento communities most burdened by air pollution, which also tend to be neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income residents.
It’s been a challenge so far for these shared vehicle companies to operate in disadvantaged communities, said Clarrissa Cabansagan, a transportation planner with the nonprofit advocacy group, TransForm. Cost, language barriers and the need to use credit cards, which aren’t always accessible to low-income residents, are major barriers, she said, as is access to a smartphone, which is necessary for these services.
But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t demand.
“I don’t know if (these companies) recognize the potential as much as they should,” Cabansagan said.
Envoy co-founder Aric Ohana acknowledged his company, which launched in 2016, has so far concentrated on market-rate and luxury apartment complexes, vacation stays and offices where developers can pay higher prices for on-site amenities and costly charging infrastructure. Unlike traditional car-sharing companies, which allow anyone with the app to rent a car, no matter where it’s parked, Envoy’s cars are designated for the residents, employees or guests where the cars are located.
And, that’s where the grant funding comes in, Ohana said.
“The California Energy Commission grant allows us to not only deploy the vehicles at minimal cost, but to also subsidize the cost for users,” he said. “We thought this was the perfect opportunity to test our business model.”
The locations are still being determined, but Ohana said by March, the company plans to have 30 vehicles spread across 15 sites in San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The company is working with consultants to help their app work for people who don’t have bank accounts. And, they’re experimenting with different pricing and time-limit schemes to find an approach that’s profitable in under-served communities.
At the same time, Envoy is embarking on a new model for car-sharing by allowing users to rent the cars as delivery or Uber and Lyft drivers.
“They can generate that revenue and bring it back to their community,” he said.