Electric Carshare Program to Come to Oberlin

By a narrow vote of four to three, Oberlin City Council passed a motion on Oct. 19 to enter into an agreement with Sway Mobility, Inc., an electric carshare startup. The deal will be funded through Oberlin’s Sustainable Reserve Fund to reduce transportation emissions in line with Oberlin’s Climate Action Plan. 

On Oct. 5 City Council was presented with a survey conducted by the City of Oberlin. The survey found that there was community interest in the program, but some criticized the data because of the survey’s small response rate. 

Oberlin Sustainability Coordinator Linda Arbogast, who spearheaded much of the Sway deal, believes that transitioning to electric transportation is a necessary step in the long path toward an environmentally-stable planet.

“The days of gas and oil are over, and it’s a hard transition,” Arbogast said. “The gas industry, the oil industry, people are going to fight this, and people are uncomfortable with it, so I just feel like there’s this struggle ahead that we have to take on.”

The City’s 2019 Climate Action Plan focuses heavily on the aim to “transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral alternatives in energy sectors for space heating and transportation.”

The co-founders of Sway Mobility, Chief Executive Officer Michael Peters and Chief Operating Officer Ken Hejduk, first met with City Council in May, when they outlined their proposal and answered questions from the councilmembers. The vote was postponed on June 1 due to concerns of limited community engagement because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kelley Singleton, one of the three councilmembers who voted against the Sway proposal, believes that there are better uses of the money provided by the Sustainable Reserve Fund.

“We could be funding the insulation of homes,” Singleton said. “We could be doing fuel switchings for home water-heating. We could spend the money on just handing out energy-efficiency lightbulbs, and that would help. I understand that transportation is a part of our Climate Action Plan. This does not seem like the biggest bang for the buck.” 

The City will pay $223,000 to Sway over the course of five years for the program, which covers costs like installing the four charging stations and maintenance of the vehicles. The payment also includes low-deductible insurance that councilmembers negotiated to make the program more accessible to low-income residents. 

In their pitch, the Sway co-founders argued that since cars are expensive and rapidly depreciate in value, car ownership is often unattractive. Instead, residents can pay to use Sway’s two Nissan LEAFs for errands and short drives. A user will schedule use of a car in 15-minute blocks through Sway’s app, with a 30-minute minimum, paying $8 an hour for the service. There is a small penalty for going over a user’s scheduled time, but the app sends out reminders when the user is approaching the end of their reservation. The City of Oberlin will receive half of Sway’s revenue annually.

After a user downloads Sway’s app, they will pay a small fee for a background check and, within 24 hours, they will receive access to the car with keyless entry via the app. Only Oberlin residents, including students, who are tracked through the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles’ records and Oberlin College IDs, will be able to use the program.

The two proposed locations for the Sway charging stations are the Public Library and City Hall parking lot and the George A. Abram pavilion behind McDonald’s. Two chargers may be installed at each station, with one charger available for public use and the other for carsharing only.

While there is no time limit for using the car, Hejduk noted that the average carshare trip is about 12 miles. A single charge lasts for roughly a 150-mile range, which restricts users from driving too far from Oberlin. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a substantial obstacle to the launch of the program. To increase safety from COVID-19 transmission, the cars will be provided with disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. Each vehicle will be periodically cleaned with a chemical fogger, eliminating any viruses. Although these cleanings would not occur after every usage, the car will indicate when it was last cleaned.

“One of the things that we really emphasize is that this is a community asset, and that we want people to treat it like a community asset, and so receive it in a condition that they would expect it, and also leave it in a condition that they would expect their neighbor to be able to use it in,” Peters said.

Despite COVID-related concerns, the program was ultimately approved after City Council had several weeks to analyze a survey conducted by the sustainability intern at the City of Oberlin Sustainability Office, College fourth-year Wenling Li, who worked extensively with Arbogast and Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz.

Over the summer, Li spent three weeks drafting and editing the survey questions. She received input from Arbogast, Frantz, the City of Oberlin staff, and the Climate Action Plan Education and Outreach Working Group. 

Arbogast then worked with Diane Ramos, administrative coordinator of communications & human resources for the City of Oberlin, to promote the survey. They collected responses over a period of three to four weeks, after distributing the survey to community groups across Oberlin — including churches, Kendal at Oberlin, and Oberlin City Schools — as well as via the Campus Digest and Student Senate Weekly.

In September, Frantz conducted the data analysis, after which Li finalized the survey’s conclusions and designed the presentation. 

“I really appreciate the chance to [have worked] with Cindy and Linda,” Li said. “I felt this is a collaboration among students, faculty, and also staff at the City.” 

The anonymous survey collected 650 total responses. The survey found that 52 percent of those who responded were interested in using Sway, 84 percent felt the price of the program was acceptable, and 20 percent of respondents with a driver’s licence did not have regular access to a car, among other findings.

However, several city councilmembers expressed reservations about the survey in the Oct. 5 and Oct. 19 meetings, arguing that some questions on the survey received far fewer responses, and therefore do not prove widespread interest and eligibility for the Sway program.

Although she acknowledges the imperfect response rate, Frantz believes the survey went surprisingly well.

“The sample that we got is the largest, best, most representative sample I’ve ever collected,” Frantz said. “I’ve done a bunch of different surveys in the City of Oberlin, and this was the biggest, so I feel great about that. It still wasn’t 100 percent representative. Low-income people chronically are just not represented in surveys as much as high-income people are. That’s true just across the board. And that was true of the sample, but we had 100 low-income people, so it was a pretty big sample. And I feel good about that. I think the data was really clear.”