Minority neighborhoods ignored by Zipcar, I-GO

Collion Leon, 33, takes a cab to get groceries. The Englewood resident does not own a car, and he prefers not to lug his purchases around on public transportation.

“It costs 5 to 7 dollars, depending on where you want to get dropped off,” he says.

If Leon lived elsewhere — on the North side, or even in Hyde Park — he could make use of the car-sharing programs like I-GO Car Sharing and Zipcar, which tout affordable and environmentally friendly options for people without cars, allowing them to rent them for an hour or two.

However, Leon's neighborhood, Englewood, which is 98 percent black and on the South Side, has no I-GO or Zipcar vehicles available for consumers.

Other South Side neighborhoods face similar problems.

Between I-GO and Zipcar, there are 531 vehicles in 303 locations within Chicago city limits. Seven I-GO cars — three percent of the I-GO fleet — are located in black neighborhoods, and only six percent are located south of Cermak, an analysis by the Daily News shows.

Zipcar has one car located in a black neighborhood, though African Americans make up 36 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2000 Census.

Representatives from both I-GO Car Sharing and Zipcar say that their companies choose car locations based on a community’s need.

“There’s a business model to car sharing, and the business model says, ‘Where are the people who don’t own cars?’ They’re the most likely to car share,” says Richard Kosmacher, business development manager at I-GO.

However, in neighborhoods like Englewood, where high percentages of households do not have cars, there remains a disparity between need and service.

In Englewood and surrounding neighborhoods, 37 percent of households do not have vehicles available to them, according to data from the 2007 American Community Survey. The area’s percentage of households without cars is second highest in the city.

In an area spanning Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, 48 percent of households are without cars. None of those neighborhoods have car sharing services available.

Both of Chicago’s car sharing companies concentrate their business in white and mixed race neighborhoods. I-GO has 145 car locations in Chicago, 89 percent of which are in white and mixed neighborhoods. Zipcar has 148 locations in the city, with 97 percent of them in white and mixed neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are mostly on the North and Northwest sides, with the exception of a few areas on the South side near Illinois Institute of Technology, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.

Leon’s Census area has only three car sharing locations. That’s one car for every 8,216 households without a car. In the Census area that includes the Loop, Near North Side, Near West Side and Near South Side, that ratio is much higher. In those areas, an I-GO or Zipcar vehicle is available for every 138 households without a car.

“Are they deciding on the basis of market demand or are they deciding on the basis of race? A lot of times people will cover up their real motivation with things that seem to be business reasons but actually aren’t,” says Naomi Davis, founder and president of BIG: Blacks in Green, an environmental organization that advocates bringing green practices and lifestyles into the black community.

“The black community is routinely the last to receive any sort of savings innovation and new, quality ideas. There’s nothing new about that. I would really be surprised if it were any other way.”

Officials at I-Go and Zipcar had different explanations.

“The most dense concentration of our cars is at the densest part of our city, which is along the lakefront,” says Kosmacher of I-GO. “But if you look at where we are, we’re in Albany Park and moving into Old Irving. We’re starting to move out and move west and also to move south.”

Zipcar representatives did not comment specifically on the concentrations of their locations, except to say that the company has expanded “to areas that we can.”

“They do very in-depth figuring out of where to expand to meet the demand,” says Lesley Neadel, a public relations representative for Zipcar. “If we’re not there, I’m sure the demand just wasn’t there to support expanding into that neighborhood.”

Unlike Zipcar, I-GO Car Sharing is a nonprofit organization. I-GO representatives said the organization is currently being considered for funding that would help expand its reach to underserved communities on the south and west sides.

Davis said the car sharing companies’ absence is just as well. She said black neighborhoods should find a way to start their own green businesses and keep the dollars circulating within the community.

“If they’re not interested in our money and our community for whatever reason, we should start our own. That is a green business that anybody can bring in,” she said. “Lots of options are not readily available in the black community. We’re accustomed to that, and that’s why I advocate self-help, creating your own green options.”

Marian Wang is a Chicago-based reporter. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News.

Discuss

SHARON FEIGON, 03-04-2009

Thank you for covering car sharing in your recent article. You brought up some important issues about the importance of serving all communities in Chicago. I-GO’s mission is to serve all neighborhoods. We are non-profit because we are dedicated to keeping our rates as affordable as possible and serving the broadest community possible. Our survey data shows that 75% of our members are below or at the median income in Chicago and that more than a quarter of our members are African-American.

I-GO was started by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in 2002 so that we could provide more transportation options to as many Chicago residents as possible while reinforcing the importance of the public transit system. As part of our efforts to reach into more communities, we recently partnered with the CTA to create a joint smartcard that allows CTA Chicago Card Plus holders to use their card to access I-GO vehicles.

Unlike Zipcar, we are not concentrated in the downtown area but, rather, serve 30 different neighborhoods. In an effort to serve more low-income Chicagoans, we are in the process of launching a partnership with several social service agencies that assist low-income clients with employment. Participants in this new program will be able to use I-GO cars at very discounted rates to go to job interviews, job training and for other work-related activities. In addition, over the last two years, I-GO helped spur the creation of two new minority-owned businesses that provide service to our vehicles.

We are very serious and committed to the need for equity and for making our service widely available. Unfortunately, We operate on a tight budget so that we are not able to expand as rapidly as we would like to, nor can we always respond quickly to requests to go to new neighborhoods. In spite of that, seven of our 30 city neighborhoods are south of the Loop and as you pointed out, all of our neighborhoods are mixed race and mixed income neighborhoods. We encourage you and your readers to become involved with I-GO and help us to make it provide the best service possible to all Chicagoans.

GEOFF DOUGHERTY, 03-04-2009

Sharon,

The new program with social service agencies sounds really interesting.

Definitely let us know when it launches so we can write about it.

CHRISTIANA JOHNS, 03-05-2009

Why didn't you interview people in these neighborhoods that want car sharing services? There is no point for these companies to offer services where they aren't wanted if that's the case. You said that if Leon lived in a different neighborhood, he would have access to these services, but did he even say he would use it? If you interviewed residents in these neighborhoods that want these services but feel ignored by them, I could understand investigating as to why these services aren't there. But I certainly wouldn't set up a business where there was no demand for it.

You also didn't point out that using a car for a couple hours costs at least $20, which is more than the $5-7 cab ride your interviewee paid for.

I don't see how there is "a disparity between need and service" just based on numbers and not actual people stating they feel ignored.

JOSE FERREIRA, 03-05-2009

I don't blame companies like Zipcar or I-GO. They're running a business and they might not think it's worthwhile to setup service in lower income neighborhoods. I live in Pilsen and I-GO has a location on 19th street, right off Halsted. That car has been broken into at least three times within the past year.

ANN MCGREGOR, 03-06-2009

To imply that I-Go or Zipcars is being racist because they aren't located on the south side is absurd. Have residents of the south side been calling I-Go or Zipcars asking them to put cars in the neighborhoods? Has either I-Go or Zipcar denied membership to non-whites?

These are businesses and if there is not demand for their services in a particular neighborhood, they are not required to to provide anything.

As a long time I-Go member, I can tell you it costs about the same, if not a bit more, to take a cab to go to the grocery store.

ANDY KIM, 03-10-2009

I don't think they are implying that I-GO is racist, that's silly. While the headline's use of "ignore" is a little harsh, I think its an important story to simply highlight the persistent disparities in resources in certain communities that HAPPEN to be predominantly Black or Latino.

Like most things in life, its not as simple as saying RACISM is the sole cause, but I think it would be naive to assume that its just coincidence that in my neighborhood on the Northside has three i-go stations within a block and in Austin or Lawndale there are none.

Sure there are plenty of good reasons for I-Go not to service the south and west side that have been mentioned here-- security, demand. But at least its worst asking why that's the case... what comes first the security/demand or the resources? And I'm glad this article highlights those disparities, because at the very least it should make those who have been fortunate to have resources where we live think and reflect.

And yea, it costs similar if not more to have I-GO than a cab, but that's the point isn't it? Its convenience, its your car for that hour. I'm sure urban residents in all communities would appreciate that too.