Wheels When Who Wants Them: Assessing Social Equity + Access Implications of Carsharing in NYC

Urban Planning Thesis

Stephanie Shellooe

David King, advisor

Carsharing operations such as Zipcar have grown in popularity in the last two decades, and provide a case study for examining transportation equity. These programs provide a vehicle to rent by the hour or day usually based on an hourly fee and an annual membership fee. The service provides a transportation alternative that could reduce economic and environmental costs of car use, and increase access — ultimately creating a more sustainable transportation network. However, as with many transportation investments, it is unclear whether these benefits are actually accruing to those with the most limited transport options. Governments subsidize carsharing operations through free parking for shared vehicles; New York City has even altered its zoning code to promote carsharing and encourages the system through PlaNYC 2030. Public subsidization provides the impetus for analyzing private carshare providers through a social justice framework.  This thesis examined whether the distribution of Zipcars (the largest carsharing operator in NYC) is socially equitable, and whether carsharing could potentially increase transport equity through alternative carshare models. The study used mixed methods including spatial and statistical analysis of carshare density to determine if shared vehicles are correlated with equity variables, controlling for feasibility indicators. This research also included an intercept survey to determine the barriers and potential of carsharing for non-work trips. The results indicated that shared vehicle density is most closely related to low car ownership, high level of alternative commuters, and high level of education; and that both spatial and corporate barriers exclude segments of the public from participating in the service. Expanding the opportunity to access carsharing through community-based innovations and government intervention could create a more equitable and sustainable transportation system.