Vulog’s Shared Journey series gives you exclusive insights into how our clients are helping transform the new mobility industry.
MINNESOTA. May 12, 2022 HOURCAR, a shared mobility nonprofit organization operating in Minnesota, is taking a completely different approach to the traditional carsharing model. Their mission is to connect people to their communities with equitable, convenient, and sustainable multimodal transportation. A partnership that includes HOURCAR, the Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and Xcel Energy (the local electric utility) raised the necessary funds to launch a new all-electric, free-floating carsharing service, Evie Carshare. HOURCAR is adding to its existing scheduled-booking service, network, and community exponentially. Vulog spoke with HOURCAR CEO Paul Schroeder to get insights into how the service is making its mark across Minnesota and beyond.
Can you tell us more about yourself and what motivated you to work in the mobility industry, particularly with a nonprofit shared mobility organization?
Before coming to HOURCAR, the work that I did centered on helping people transitioning out of homelessness and incarceration find jobs. During this time, I saw that the necessary components of stability for most people were housing, employment, and reliable transportation. The transportation aspect was a complex puzzle to figure out. The places where housing was affordable were very distant from available jobs.
I subsequently relocated to the Midwest, where I saw an opportunity to go to work for this nonprofit carsharing company, HOURCAR.
I was interested because of my nonprofit and social entrepreneurial background, so finding a mobility operator that runs on a nonprofit business model was very interesting to me. I was intrigued by the idea of how to make transportation more accessible for more people.
Can you tell us about HOURCAR?
HOURCAR connects people to their communities with convenient, equitable, and sustainable multimodal transportation.
HOURCAR started in the Twin Cities as a two-way (i.e., scheduled booking) carsharing service under the former Neighborhood Energy Connection (a nonprofit organization in Minnesota). In 2017, HOURCAR spun off as its own nonprofit carshare service and we expanded to Rochester Minnesota in 2019.
Beginning in 2017, HOURCAR started a series of conversations with Xcel Energy (the local electric utility) and the City of Saint Paul about a concept for a new all-electric transportation network that would include both on-street renewably-powered charging access and an all-electric one-way carsharing service.
In 2018, HOURCAR took initiative in the formation of the public-private partnership that raised the funds needed to launch the EV Spot Network and Evie Carshare – an all-electric, free-floating carsharing service with over 150 shared vehicles. This efficiently complemented our existing two-way service.
We were also able to raise funding from the US Department of Energy to start another project, our Multifamily EV Carshare project, which focuses on equitable electric mobility. The project aims to increase electric mobility options for residents of low-income multifamily complexes, while also decreasing barriers to building out electric vehicle charging stations at multifamily dwellings.
How do you measure your success as a nonprofit?
As a nonprofit corporation, we don’t have shareholders or investors, so we don’t return a profit to anybody. Our goal is rather to provide a benefit to the community. To do that, we have to stay in business, so although we’re a nonprofit company, we also need to be able to bring in enough revenue to support our operations and continue to grow and expand.
For Evie Carshare, we created a contract with the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis that has specific targets by which our success is measured, including the percentage of trips taken by low-income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) individuals. We have specific, measurable targets that we need to hit every year for the next five years to grow participation in the service by low-income and BIPOC individuals, and we are very passionate about reaching those.
The majority of the service area is in diverse and low-income neighborhoods. About 90% of the home area is in neighborhoods where most residents are either BIPOC, low income, or both. We designed the service area specifically with this in mind.
Have you managed to inspire other individuals or other organizations?
Right now, many cities are trying to figure out what to do about transportation electrification. They confront a number of challenges, including how to build out charging infrastructure that is equitably accessible.
We think Evie Carshare and the Multifamily project have strong potential for replication. The replicability stems from the fact that these projects solve a problem that many cities and local governments are confronting. How do we build out this infrastructure? Who’s going to use it? How do we account for the fact that EVs are so costly?
Other cities and other entities are watching what we’re doing. We have ongoing conversations with other carsharing companies throughout the US and in the UK. I believe HOURCAR will influence how shared mobility, particularly carsharing, evolves in the US over the next several years.
Why did you choose to partner with Vulog?
We decided that the Vulog technology offered the most in terms of the service we wanted for our users. The transition a little over a year ago was at times challenging because it was the first time Vulog had ever undertaken such a variety of different kinds of vehicles. I think we had 20 different makes and models – a lot to handle!
We worked together to get the initial problems straightened out. Our fleet size currently stands at 158 vehicles, and we plan to add another 108 by the end of this year. As for Vulog’s One App and the AiMA platform, things are going very well, as we can now offer our users the best of both worlds.
Our two-way (scheduled booking) service is excellent for meetings, longer trips, or when you need a specialized vehicle like a truck. Our Evie service is perfect for short notice and one-way trips, as users can just hop in and hit the road. The One App enables access to both systems, which provides the best of both carsharing worlds.
You’ve recently shifted your business model, by adding free-floating service to your existing scheduled booking service. What was the motivation behind this decision?
In focus groups and forums we did prior to launching Evie Carshare, we heard that one-way carshare would be a great benefit to users and would solve some of their transportation challenges in a way that two-way carsharing would not. Free-floating allows us to expand our use cases, particularly for folks looking for a better way to connect to jobs.
For example, if you have people living in parts of the Twin Cities where they don’t have good access to the light rail, people can use one of our one-way vehicles to get to the nearest light-rail station. Moving from one place to another seamlessly is the goal.
Free-floating also perfectly complements our scheduled booking service, covering different kinds of mobility needs. Users can get a one-way vehicle in real-time or reserve in advance; this expands the use cases for the service.
Free-floating is more demanding from a fleet logistics perspective; it requires more fleet staff to position these vehicles, especially when it snows; however, it’s less challenging in other ways. With free-floating, there are no reservations; there’s never an issue about whether or not the car gets back in time, whether it’s there when someone wants a reservation, or whether it’s been appropriately allocated. The car is either available for rent or unavailable.
What are the benefits and challenges you have seen with Evie Carshare?
We have seen a lot of people signing up for our service since we soft-launched Evie on February 2. We’re ahead of projections as we approach the formal launch on May 13. We have high expectations that when we officially introduce this service to the Twin Cities community, people will love it. The early indicators suggest that they already do love it. In the first 90 days since the soft launch, Evie has logged over 9,000 trips and over 75,000 miles powered by renewable energy. If those miles had been driven in internal-combustion engine vehicles, they would have produced 29 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
We were worried when we first launched this project that the unfamiliarity with electric vehicles might be a problem for people driving the cars, but that hasn’t been a problem. People get in the cars and drive. They need very little help or assistance, which is excellent.
A challenge for us always is winter logistics, as there can be a fair amount of snow here. Cars need to move around a lot when it’s snowing to accommodate snowplows. And we’ve had challenges getting chargers installed and up and running due to supply-chain logistics.
However, we really are fortunate. We have over 100 electric vehicles when it’s difficult to obtain them right now, and we got 22 charging stations up and running. Other shared mobility providers are trying to expand, but it’s impossible to get new cars, so all in all, we’re doing pretty well.
What would you say have been your major achievements with HOURCAR?
One of our key accomplishments was the completion of our Community Engagement Report, where we worked with ten community-based organizations (NGOs) representing the communities we aspire to serve. We tried to better understand the transportation needs of those residents, as well as the barriers they encounter.
The report included some recommendations like lowering our prices and creating a qualified low-income rate structure – and we did that! We launched our Access PLUS plan in December of last year, which is an income-qualified plan available to households earning below 50 percent of area median income. We also started offering real-time translation services on our member hotline to assist those whose primary language is not English.
Getting Evie Carshare off the ground is a tremendous accomplishment, and our next big one is launching this Multifamily project. This summer, we plan to launch EV carshare hubs at five affordable housing complexes in the Twin Cities.
What does the future look like for HOURCAR?
Success for us looks like helping people make better connections to the community, jobs, and services, and building solid partnerships with local transit, local governments, and other partners. We’re very interested in how our project can influence the development of transportation in other places in the US.
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