Pinellas County's first car-sharing service launched Tuesday in St. Petersburg, where officials say a younger, denser downtown has created a new niche for on-demand cars.
The hourly and daily rental program is starting small with a fleet of two: a white Nissan Cube and a steel-gray Fiat 500. They'll be parked inside a University of South Florida St. Petersburg garage on Third Street S.
But while the service may have modest beginnings, city officials expect it to grow in the next few years as more apartments crop up and younger residents move to the area.
"Right now we have nine housing projects downtown that will add 2,000 people in the next 18 months," City Council chairman Karl Nurse said after a news conference on campus. "Most of them actually are within walking distance — comfortable walking distance — of where we are right now."
Nurse said he would be surprised if six car-sharing sites weren't up and running in the downtown area within three years.
Mayor Bill Foster envisions the cars being rented for quick shopping runs and day trips to the beach. He told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that bike-sharing also "is on the horizon" for St. Petersburg, adding that city officials have been contacted by would-be vendors.
"I do think there's renewed interest," Foster said.
The car-sharing service is run by WeCar, a division of the rental agency Enterprise. It operates four other sites in Florida, including a three-car detail at USF's flagship campus in Tampa. St. Petersburg students began signing up for memberships with WeCar on Feb. 1, with registration opening to the public in coming weeks.
About 800,000 people across the nation use car-shares from businesses like WeCar, said Kyle Sabie, corporate rental manager. He estimates that each car is used by 65 to 70 drivers and takes 10 vehicles off the road.
While a spin in the Nissan or Fiat is substantially cheaper than a new car, it's not a free ride. Annual WeCar membership runs $35, and drivers pay for seat time: Rates begin at $8.50 an hour, $70 a day, and $30 overnight, including gas and insurance.
Drivers merely have to reserve the vehicles online, then swipe their membership cards against an electronic windshield sensor to unlock the cars.
The minimum age to become a member is 18, seven years younger than the age more typical rental car agencies will serve. The only caveat is that anyone younger than 21 will need parental consent.
Julie Bond, senior research associate at the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research, said St. Petersburg students have been asking for car rental options for years but were met with hesitation from car-sharing operators. Their thinking was, "This might not be your best place to go in and make money," Bond recalled.
Part of what tipped WeCar in their direction was a grant from Florida's transportation department. WeCar needs about $1,200 per vehicle to break even each month — the same amount Florida is providing for one year.
For the second car, USF has agreed to pay up to $600 of WeCar's $1,200 investment if membership and driving fees don't cover the cost.
But USF thinks that won't be a problem; Bond and interim chancellor Bill Hogarth said they expect plenty of people to sign up.
WeCar does, too.
The company's Tampa site originally had four cars, but scaled back to three when too few students signed up to justify the cost. But John Shafer, director of business rental sales at Enterprise Holdings, sees a better scenario playing out across the bay.
Downtown St. Petersburg is more densely populated, with fewer students driving long distances and keeping their cars on campus with them all day, Shafer said.
Before expanding at USF St. Petersburg, WeCar will monitor the mile logs of the first two cars.
On Tuesday, St. Petersburg students already were monitoring the Fiat and the Cube. While the mayor may have been picturing grocery runs and beach trips, 20-year-old Trevor Salmon had something else in mind.
"I could definitely see students using it if they want to pick up their dates in something nicer," Salmon said.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] or (727) 893-8707. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).