Published in ArtVoice Weekly, written by Buck Quigly

It’s been five years now since the iconic blue cars of Buffalo CarShare began popping up on city streets. The program was started by some local college students who were determined to bring the practice of short-term car rental to Buffalo.Car sharing programs exist in thousands of cities in about 30 countries, and globally there are some two million people who opt to forego ownership of a vehicle in favor of simply borrowing one when they need it. In urban areas where on-street parking is the norm, it is estimated that one such short-term rental car can take the place of 15 owned vehicles.

“We started five years ago out of UB,” explains Executive Director Mike Galligano, “with a grant to reduce carbon emissions and start car sharing in Buffalo.”

Since its inception, Buffalo CarShare has grown from four cars to a fleet of 18 vehicles, including four new Ford Focus electric cars that will take you 80 miles around town on a single charge without spitting out one puff of exhaust. With only a handful of dedicated members at the outset, they have grown to a membership of 700. The aim is to expand to 30 cars with 1,000 members by the end of 2015 with the help of a $100,000 challenge grant from the Oishei Foundation. Indeed, Buffalo CarShare is a nonprofit, and is supported by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the NFTA, Green Options Buffalo, NYSDOT, and NYSERDA.

Based on the group’s success here, former Executive Director Creighton Randall is working as the Startup Manager for Capital CarShare in Albany, as that city begins to launch a car share program of its own.

Following the path of Buffalo CarShare, the same group has launched Buffalo BikeShare. “Our bicycle program is currently at UB with 40 bikes, and also we’re doing a pilot program now within the city,” Galligano says. The GPS technology built into the bikes allows them to be tracked as they are used. “We’re hand-picking folks and seeing where they’re going, and seeing how this brand new system can actually work in Buffalo.”

Social Bicycles, the vendor that provides the sturdy Dutch-style commuter bikes for the Buffalo BikeShare program, is scheduled to launch similar programs in seven other cities in the US and Canada this year—but Buffalo is the first place to actually roll out the service in 2013, according to Galligano. For UB Students, a $30 fee covers a yearly membership. Every day members get 60 minutes of free usage, and each additional hour is $3.

While the bike share program is fully functioning at UB, the system in Allentown and the Elmwood Village is still in a startup phase. “I would say there are 25 bikes in the city right now. And the reason we’re still in this pilot phase is capacity issues. It’s a completely different bike share system,” Galligano says.

Unlike New York City’s bike share program—CitiBike—where riders have to pick up and dock the bikes at specific, fixed hubs, the Buffalo BikeShare scheme uses virtual hubs. Because the bikes are located by GPS using a specific smart phone app, it’s only necessary to lock them within certain areas clearly displayed on the app. The next user checks the app to locate an available bike, then can reserve it and unlock it with a four-digit PIN. If you’re stopping at the store, or grabbing a cup of coffee, you can press the “hold” button on the bike’s keypad to indicate that you’re still using it. If the bike breaks down, you press the “repair” button, secure it to a rack with the built-in lock, and check the app to find a different bike. In the event you ride far outside the areas designated as virtual hubs and leave the bike there, an additional charge will apply.

How this all works in practice is still being ironed out. “We’re not a bike sharing company yet, but we’re learning how to be one—just like with CarShare,” says Galligano.

Who uses these services? “When we started CarShare we thought our market was going to be the bike riding yuppies that are living on Elmwood and in Allentown,” Galligano confesses, “but it ends up that 50 percent of our members make $25,000 or less. That blows out any car sharing company in the country. We get the Canisius professor that rides his bike everywhere and loves our electric cars, and we also get the single mother of two because it’s affordable.”

For those who don’t want to own a car and all its attendant hassles like insurance, repairs, and parking, becoming a Buffalo CarShare member may be a reasonable alternative—there are 700 people in town who seem to think so. Similarly, city dwellers who live in apartments where storage space is at a premium may find it a blessing to hop on a smooth-riding bike from point A to point B without the nagging worry of getting your personal ride stolen. Lock your shared bike, and walk away. Got a flat? Lock it up and hop on another shared bike.

The same group is developing a RideShare program for the elderly and the disabled, and will soon rebrand all of their transportation services under one name: Shared Mobility.

In the meantime, this Sunday (6/8) Buffalo CarShare/BikeShare will be celebrating five years of offering alternative transportation schemes with a casual, family-style picnic in LaSalle Park. There will be free food and beverages and live entertainment by Ten Cent Howl.

“It will be open to the public,” says Jen White, Communications Director for the group. “So members can bring friends and family, and anyone who is interested in learning more about our organization or anyone who wants to have lunch and a good time. It is a way for us to commemorate how successful the past five years have been, as well as a way to thank our members for their support. We’ll have our electric vehicles and BikeShare bikes there for folks to check out.”

For more information visit buffalocarshare.org and buffalo.socialbicycles.com.