After exhausting $1.8 million funding, Richmond’s Easy Go program yields low usage rates at high costs
on December 6, 2014
One day in January 2012, city leaders gathered in Richmond Village at 23rd street and Cutting Blvd. Red bows tied together rows of Miles Electric ZX40s, Toyota Priuses and other cars.
It was the ceremony to launch the new program, Easy Go.
From December 2011 to August 2013, the Easy Go program, funded by nearly $1.8 million in Chevron tax settlement, provided subsidized electric car rentals, bike rentals, kids cabs, van services and AC Transit Easy passes for Richmond residents. Easy Go aimed to replace Richmond residents’ traditional car trips to reduce local emissions. After going dormant after exhausting its first round of grant funding, the program is set to restart in full thanks to millions in subsidies provided by Chevron Corp. in exchange for the City Council’s approval of its refinery modernization project.
But critics say the program is too expensive, provides vehicles few people use and doesn’t effectively link the resources to the residents who need them. Program financial reports tell a story of relatively low usage rates at high costs.
Easy Go leased 25 cars for its car sharing program at a total cost of $210,000, or $400 per month each, according to Fred Khan of transMetro, the prime contractor for Easy Go.
But an average of only 120 reservations were made per month, or about four per day, according to documents provided by Kahn. The highest monthly total was in September 2012, with 251 reservations.
The car share program had 2,514 reservations in total, meaning each reservation provided by the program cost about $83.53.
Khan said the $400 leasing cost was reasonable because it included car share technology, automobile liability insurance up to $5 million per car, fuel, maintenance, repair and GPS.
But some leaders aren’t so sure.
“I’m going to have them come and do a staff report on it,” Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles said, “because these expenses are not making sense to me. It’s not computing.”
In an email, Beckles added that Easy Go’s community outreach efforts fell short.
“I work with Richmond families who express often, that they need to get to medical appointments and school appointments but don’t have a way to get there,” Beckles wrote. “It appears as though the cars aren’t being used.”
Easy Go also spent $63,000 on its bike rental program. The money bought 32 bikes, cages and racks in Richmond Village and Liberty Village and a few bike education and encouragement events, as well as transMetro’s program administration.
The money resulted in 89 bike reservations total for the 21 months period, according to the usage report, or about four bike reservations per month.
“The bicycle program wasn’t so successful,” Khan said.
Naj K. Smith, the founder of Rich City RIDES, a separate organization, said that when he rented out bikes from Easy Go for a community bike tour, he had to spend time fixing the bikes before he could use them.
But despite the high costs per usage of its services, Easy Go did receive recognition for its work, winning the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership award and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Air Champion Award.
Easy Go’s kids cab service operated two vans to drive kids to and from after school programs and different events, Khan said. Its deviated route van service drove non-paratransit eligible and low income families around on shopping trips, grocery runs and communities events.
These programs appeared to do better than the bike and car share efforts. Each month, an average of 346 reservations were made for the kids cab service and 276 reservations were made for the deviated route van service, according to the usage report. Khan said that each reservation has on average five people on it. That puts kids cab user number to 1,730 per month and deviated route van user number to 1,380 per month.
“Kids cab and deviated route were oversubscribed,” Khan said.
Despite its mixed record, Easy Go ran out of money and was suspended in September 2013. The car sharing program has been idle since. Kids cab service and bicycle rentals were resumed in July 2014 with new grant funding.
Six Miles electric vans were seen sitting in Richmond Village until last week. One van didn’t have a front plate. Another had flat tires. All appeared to have not been used recently. These six cars were towed away last week.
Councilman Jim Rogers, Easy Go’s strongest proponent, said it’s still too early to judge if Easy Go is worth the price tag.
“There have certainly been promising results in the sense that certain parts of the Easy Go program have been operating pretty close to break even,” Rogers said.
Rogers admitted that Easy Go’s costs are high and its usage is low, but he doesn’t think traditional measurements like ridership or cost tell the whole story.
“When you look at a pilot program, the key question isn’t so much how large was your usage, because of course the usage is small,” Rogers said. “The key question is have you identified something where you can find some economics that make sense so you can then roll out on a large scale.”
Easy Go cost $1,779,781.40 in total, according to its workscope. 35 percent of its funding went to project management, 28 percent to a local jobs plan and 12 percent to PR and Marketing. These three expenses add up to 75 percent of all funding. The service package of car rentals, bike rentals, kids cab, deviated route and AC Transit Easy passes absorbed the other 25 percent roughly.
The project management portion covers administration cost, staffing, equipment (vans for kids cab and deviated route services) and implementation. The local jobs plan, which amounted to $492,888, was spent on hiring seven Richmond residents as transportation coordinators.
The car sharing program cost $210,000, according to Khan. transMetro leased 10 Miles electric vans and 5 hybrids like Toyota Prius at Richmond Village. The Miles vans were not popular because they ran at a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour and were not fit for highways, Khan said.
transMetro leased five hybrids for Easy Go’s Hilltop Mall location. And five more hybrids were placed on demand and parked in transMetro’s yard in Richmond because there was no space to park them, Khan said.
While Easy Go is idle, it likely won’t be suspended for long, because more Chevron money is coming into the program.
The Chevron modernization agreement says that Chevron will make guaranteed payment of $5 million over five years into the Electric City and Easy Go program. When the modernization agreement is fully cashed out, a total of $18 million will go into the Electric City and Easy Go program.
The Finance Department has already received the first $1 million check of the guaranteed payment from Chevron on Oct. 7, city revenue manager Antonio Banuelos said.
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