Zipcar wants to offer a new kind of service in Boston, one that would allow its customers to park cars in any legal public spot, at any time. Time’s up on the meter? Just ignore it. No residential permit? It’s fine to park there.
The company’s proposed expansion is prompted by the launch of a city pilot program that sets aside public parking spots for so-called car-sharing companies — those that rent by the hour as well as by the day —
The program would allow users of free-floating car services — which let drivers pick up and drop off cars at any legal spot — to park in residential spaces and at meters without worrying about getting a ticket or needing a neighborhood sticker.
This month, the city put 150 of these new permits out to bid.
The expectation was that Car2Go, as the biggest of these companies in the United States, would be a leading contender. Daimler-owned Car2Go declined to bid by Monday’s deadline, however, saying that it would need many more than 150 permits to make its service effective in Boston.
But Zipcar stepped in. This is its home turf, after all. The company started in Cambridge and is now based in South Boston’s Fort Point section, as a division of Avis Budget Group.
Regular Zipcars are used for short-term, round-trip rentals and must be parked in designated lots or garages. For the last year, the company has also been testing a one-way service in Boston, but those cars are also parked in marked Zipcar spots.
Now, the company wants to take its chances in Boston’s wild world of unassigned parking, with vehicles that can be picked up or dropped off at any legal spot.
“Our 15 years of operating in and around Boston give us a great familiarity with the landscape,” said Lisa Feldman, Zipcar’s general manager in Boston. “We really understand the challenges here in Boston and some of the unique aspects of the way the city operates.”
Currently, Zipcar has about 1,000 round-trip cars throughout Greater Boston, plus 200 in its one-way program. Many of the 150 new permits will be used for cars already in the fleet.
If the Boston experiment succeeds, Susan Shaheen, codirector of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at University of California Berkeley, expects Zipcar to expand the service to other cities, she said.
The free-floating option represents half of the DriveBoston program. The city also offered as many as 80 municipal spaces, with up to 40 per company. Zipcar and Enterprise Holdings each submitted bids by Monday’s deadline.
Many Boston residents grumbled when Boston’s DriveBoston pilot program became public in recent weeks, making as many as 230 parking permits available to car-sharing companies. The hunt for precious spots can be grueling at any time of the year, let alone when the city is blanketed by snowdrifts taller than people.
But Shaheen said her research shows each round-trip vehicle from a company like Zipcar can eventually take at least nine cars off the streets, as people ditch their vehicles in favor of on-demand car services.
Zipcar’s Feldman said the company wants to use 30 spaces in municipal lots and 10 street spaces, in various parts of the city. Several other municipalities, such as Cambridge and Brookline, offer spaces to these companies — although this is a first for Boston.
Bonnie McGilpin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration, declined to discuss the bids in detail because city officials have not had the time to fully review them. She said the administration believes that expanding car-sharing options will benefit the city, potentially by taking some privately owned cars off the streets.
The companies won’t get to do this for free, though. The 80 municipal spots would be made available for $3,500 per car annually in the downtown area, and for $2,700 in other neighborhoods. The 150 free-floating permits go for $3,500 per car annually, or $525,000 a year for all 150.
The 150 permits might seem like a big number to frazzled car owners competing for spots. But Mike DeBonville, a business development manager at Car2Go, said the company needed at least 400 to achieve the critical mass it needed in Boston. DeBonville said Car2Go representatives had been working with city officials for two years to develop a “park anywhere” program.
Car2Go already operates them in 15 metro areas in North America.
The promise of a free-floating service like Car2Go is that the company could spread cars throughout the city, within a short walk of its members. Drivers would check their computers or smartphones to find the closest car and then, in the case of Car2Go, pay 41 cents a minute or $15 an hour.
Zipcar charges its members by the hour or the day for round-trip service. Company officials say they still need to work out with the city how they would charge members for use of the free-floating cars.
“I see free-floating as the logical evolution [to Zipcar’s model],” said Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory.
“It’s a more efficient, more flexible system.”