Rob Sobieralski moved to Oahu’s downtown area four years ago and never got a car. Now he has his pick of some selections from Servco Pacific Inc.’s recent offering, the Hui Car Share stations, available to any walk-up customer at $9.95 an hour. That was the option he chose for getting himself and a friend to a doctor’s office for an appointment.
“I even have different ones,” he said, walking up to the Hui station in the 400 Keawe St. parking lot. “Sometimes I go for the truck over there, and the fancy car, the Lexus, over by Ward.”
Before Hui Car Share came along, what did he do?
“I walked,” he added flatly. “This has expanded the whole island.”
Sobieralski is part of a small but growing number of Hawaii drivers joining a national, primarily urban venture known as the “sharing economy,” which encompasses services from Uber and Lyft to Airbnb and Grubhub.
Technology, through smartphone apps and other software, has enabled a fluid kind of commerce through unmanned businesses parked on the street or through entrepreneurs who might pop up where they’re called, ready to earn a fee.
What that could enable in Honolulu and other cities is a loosening of the American car culture, at least the aspect that drives individual car ownership, and a move toward casual or infrequent private car use and other alternative transit strategies.
In the meantime, especially outside the urban core, plenty of evidence persists that people haven’t given up on cars yet, said Harold Nedd. Least of all would be his own son, who is just about the last one to consider public transportation in any form, said the spokesman with the city Customer Services Department.
If anything, the high cost of living has driven families to share space in multigenerational households. Several adults in each house can possess individual cars, all of which vie for space on suburban neighborhood streets.
“I don’t think it’s going to go from 100 to zero overnight but I think the (car) enthusiasm will be dimmed a bit,” said Makena Coffman, University of Hawaii professor and urban planner. “I have to acknowledge, some of these services aren’t for people lugging around car seats.”
Honolulu is a bit slow to adopt some services enabling commuters to finish the “last mile” to their destination. For example, while the Biki bikeshare network has been a big success with significant municipal backing, the notion of “dockless” scooters has given city officials hives.
The electric scooters introduced here last year are owned by the rental company Lime, which now operates its dockless scooters and bikes in more than 100 cities around the world.
They have been controversial because the user can unlock a scooter using a smartphone app and then be billed at 15 cents per minute to ride them until they sign out, leaving the vehicle wherever the ride ends.
“They are challenging traditional institutions,” Coffman said. “I think cities around the world are having to address the use of public space. They haven’t been embraced here yet.”
Complaints about scooters littering sidewalks have been commonplace and rang out loudly in Honolulu as well. In May, Lime announced the temporary suspension of its system in Honolulu when city officials defined the scooters as mopeds that legally can’t be parked on sidewalks.
An urban trend
What gives Coffman the impression that there is a change in the offing, that the city is moving inexorably toward shared transit platforms, is that about 30 percent of populations live in the urban center. This gives the budding trend some critical mass in city environments.
Also, the automotive industry is paying heed, signaling that executives see shared and transportation models as a going concern, and something their companies need to build into their own business plan.
Dave Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association (HADA), said there is a group here that is at the “cutting edge,” staying on top of current innovations and looking for a way to introduce them to the marketplace.
“The dealers have not eschewed it, they’ve embraced it,” Rolf said.
Servco, which introduced the Hui network last July, is one of them. The Hui Verified Driver Program (www.drivehui.com) has resulted in the creation of about 6,300 accounts from launch through December, said Peter Fukunaga, director of Hui Car Share.
There are hopes for expansion, but currently the network includes 25 stations, stretching from Pearlridge to Waikiki but with the greatest concentration in the urban core — downtown, Kakaako, Ala Moana.
Each has two or three cars ready for rent by those who have downloaded the app and had their driver’s license confirmed through the mobile registration process. The process involves entering the license number, credit card and other basic data and submitting a selfie, the applicant photographed holding his or her license.
In the Honolulu Star-Advertiser test, approval happened within an hour of submitting the photo, but staff said it can take a little longer.
Fukunaga’s staff compiled statistics for its five months of operations and released some estimates: 4,300 reservations made for a total of 28,000 rented hours and 191,000 miles driven.
“Hui usage has been increasing dramatically each month,” Fukunaga added. “For example, December had an 85 percent increase over November.”
“A lot of people we’ve spoken to have heard about Hui and are taking to it very easily,” said Kristine Wada, marketing manager. “Tourists are an easy fit because with the app, they are able to get into a vehicle without having to wait in line anywhere.”
Familiarity breeds usage
Julie Yamamoto, operations manager, said that many new arrivals to Honolulu come here already familiar with the car-sharing platform.
“On the mainland carsharing is really, really big, so they know what it is already,” Yamamoto said. “When they find out that Hawaii has it and they move here, they won’t buy a car, or they’ll buy only one. We even have residents who, when their family members come in town, sometimes they’ll get one.”
Wada added that stations are located purposely within a few blocks of a sizable residential area, or where students congregate — near the Hawaii Pacific University or University of Hawaii campuses, for example.
Car dealers are looking at the impact of all these changes on individual car ownership, said Rolf, who is pressing for ways to make new trends work for the legacy industry.
HADA has done some sales projections factoring in anticipated rail ridership, carsharing, increasingly “walkable” communities and electric vehicles. A sales decrease is forecast in the next 20 years but the growing interest in EVs and ultimately in self-driving cars will buoy them again after that, according to HADA projections.
There are other prospects for revenue streams for car dealerships, including new subscription systems HADA is examining, Rolf said.
One is the Atlanta-based Clutch Technologies, which developed a branded software suite enabling dealers to give paying subscribers access to a range of cars on the lot rather than buying and driving off with just one, said Alan Powell, senior vice president of sales. Service would include maintenance, and the convenience would appeal to customers.
“You buy a car for three or five or seven years, and you’re kind of stuck,” he said. “This makes it easy to get into a car, and effortless to maintain it. I’m not saying this is a subscription product for everybody, but I think it’s a subscription product for a lot of people.”
At the extreme end of driver attachment to an individual car is the self-driving car (“autonomous vehicles”), a development known as “transportation as a service.”
That may be a while in coming, Rolf said.
“HADA sees that trend, but we anticipate a slower uptake curve,” he added. “Change coming in personal transportation is likely not a revolution, but a continuing evolution.”