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UB Brings Car Sharing to Campuses

(photo by Clark Dever /

But local vendor loses out to national chain

In mid-March the University at Buffalo issued a request for proposal (RFP) to bring a car sharing program to its three campuses to service the needs of students, faculty, and staff members. The decision is linked to environmental stewardship guidelines in UB’s 2020 strategic plan. Car sharing will help effect a climate action program that calls for reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions on campus to zero; it’s estimated that for every car shared, 10 to 20 single occupancy vehicles are taken off the road.

The companies that responded to the RFP included national, for-profit corporation Zipcar, which exists in more than 49 US cities, and the UB-bred, independent Buffalo CarShare, a nonprofit initiative of Green Options Buffalo.

On April, 27, UB’s Parking and Transportation Department announced its decision to engage in a four-year contract with Zipcar. Zipcar will launch this August with five or six cars positioned at on-campus hubs on the three campuses. A UB student affairs announcement quoted Maria Wallace, director of Parking and Transportation Services, as stating, “Zipcar’s nation-wide college experience, their years of operation, fleet of vehicles, and insurance coverage provisions made Zipcar the clear choice for our car sharing vendor.”

But for many, Buffalo CarShare seemed the more logical choice. Why go with a giant corporation when Buffalo already has its own local, nonprofit, community-centered version of car sharing—one founded by UB graduates who continue to take advantage of close ties to the university and its resources, and who have a working knowledge of the Buffalo region?

“I’m really unhappy about it,” says Esther Dsouza, a recent graduate in environmental design and geography. “UB is always interested in talking about how it’s local, and this was an opportunity to prove it. [Buffalo Car Share] is homegrown.”

UB spokesman John Della Contrada says there were two major factors that made Zipcar stand out: insurance and experience.

The insurance issue surrounds coverage for 18- to 20-year-olds. Zipcar directly covers these students at state-mandated minimums, which means $25,000 injury liability per person and $10,000 property damage. Buffalo CarShare requires the same drivers to be covered by additional personal insurance or on a guardian’s policy. Buffalo CarShare’s policy then acts as an umbrella, covering the student by a combined single limit of $1 million per accident, which includes property damage.

The RFP specifically called for a contractor with at least three years’ experience. Zipcar has been in existence since 2000 and has worked with more than 150 colleges and universities nationwide. Buffalo CarShare is about to celebrate its first anniversary in June. The founders understand that experience could be a concern, but are quick to point out their rapid growth, member satisfaction, and strong community connections. In addition to their years of UB experience—the three founding members on staff have five degrees between them—and Buffalo CarShare’s parent company, the Wellness Institute, has been around for more than 20 years.

Regardless of past experience, Buffalo CarShare had a plan in place to incrementally service the growing needs of UB’s student population. Like Zipcar, they would have been positioned to launch in August with six vehicles: three at the north campus, two at the south, and one in the medical corridor. The difference is that Buffalo CarShare already has, and will be expanding, vehicles positioned throughout the Buffalo community—not just on campuses—including a truck at the Allen-Medical Campus NFTA stop. This means students, faculty, and staff members would have greater accessibility to vehicles throughout Buffalo, and would be part of a membership system that integrates them with the greater Buffalo community. Buffalo CarShare founder Adam Blair says, “It’s one less barrier to living or shopping off campus—to coming downtown, exploring, and supporting the local economy.” Creighton Randall, also a Buffalo CarShare founder and UB graduate, adds, “The big distinction is that they were seeking a program to provide service for on-campus students, and we tried to merge that with a solution we also see benefiting off-campus students and off-campus faculty and staff who will not be served by Zipcar.”

Ithaca Carshare found that experience cannot substitute for solid partnerships. Jennifer Dotson, executive director of Ithaca Carshare, says, “Cornell was approached by Zipcar, but we were fortunate in them seeing the value in having community-based car sharing. They recognized that having a local program would be very beneficial. We can better assess what local needs are.” David Lieb, associate director of transportation services at Cornell and board chair for Ithaca Carshare, says that when Zipcar didn’t offer what they wanted, they worked with the community to form Ithaca Carshare. “We feel it serves our broader community, students, and faculty far better than plunking down a couple of cars on campus.” Ithaca Carshare will have been in operation for two years in June and now have a 13-vehicle fleet and about 900 members. Their rapid success was greatly fueled by Cornell’s investment of advanced membership purchases for their students.

The other main benefit Buffalo CarShare offers UB that Zipcar doesn’t is support of a local social justice mission. Daniel B. Hess, associate professor of urban planning at UB, has served as an advisor to Buffalo CarShare and says, “I was not surprised that UB went with the big corporation, but it would have been nice to see the small, local organization get a break. The people running Buffalo CarShare are very committed to what they hope to do. They have a mission to serve low-income communities and improve people’s access to transportation. I do not think you find such a mission coming from Zipcar.”

But essentially points are the driver. The proposal respondents participated in a public bid and the evaluation committee, made up of faculty, staff, and student representatives, awarded points based on RFP criteria. Della Contrada says, “The university is obligated by state guidelines to hold a competitive bid for this kind of contract to ensure that New York State residents receive the best value for their tax dollars. Unfortunately, Buffalo CarShare did not submit the most competitive bid.”

Could the RFP been written differently so the local group could come out on top? Probably, but UB is not allowed to award points in a public bid simply based on locality. Could they have included a reference to a social mission that supports the broader Buffalo community? Maybe. Did they have to stipulate three years’ experience? Maybe not, but they did.

“We understand that UB made the decision they felt was best for the criteria they were using,” says Creighton. “It was a business decision. We just hope that future decisions will be able to reflect the long-term vision of the university.”

Regardless, UB is doing something good. Della Contrada says, “Zipcar is an example of how we’re making decisions that will help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and also change the culture of the campus, so we’re less focused on cars and more focused on environmental sustainability.”

So what’s next? Della Contrada says there may yet be opportunities for UB to work with Buffalo CarShare when Zipcar’s contract ends, or even as the downtown campus expands. He wants dialogue to continue. Beverly Mclean, assistant professor of architecture, especially supports a future connection “because Buffalo CarShare is trying to work in partnership with the NFTA. Strategically that’s what you need in the long run,” alluding to the need for a bigger shift in UB’s transportation vision and partnership approach.

UB will also be opening the Office of Economic Engagement in the former M. Wile building downtown, which will be run by Marsha Henderson, UB’s vice president for external affairs. Della Contrada says this effort is because UB “want[s] local businesses to have a better understanding of how to work with UB and have better access to UB so that they can find out what opportunities may exist.”

For Buffalo CarShare, this is a “small blip in the road,” says founder Mike Galligano, adding, “We’re Buffalo CarShare, not UB CarShare.” Buffalo CarShare admits they’ve had positive conversations with other higher education institutions and are looking forward to forming relationships that invest in the community and support their environmental and social missions.

The team will celebrate their first anniversary with 10 vehicles at nine locations around the Buffalo region and around 200 very satisfied members. They enjoy partnerships with the Allentown Association and Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and with the addition of their truck, now work with nonprofit groups like PUSH, Buffalo ReUse, Massachusetts Avenue Project, and Grassroots Gardens among others.

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