When she spearheaded the introduction of a citywide car sharing service by Hertz in 2010, Mayor Dawn Zimmer promised a brave new world of decongested streets and freed up parking spots. The effect of the “Corner Cars” program, she predicted in a New Jersey Municipalities magazine essay, would be “equivalent to building a 700 car garage, but without costing taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Five years later, Hoboken has indeed seen a noticeable drop in the number of residents parking their cars on city streets, though demand still easily exceeds the finite number of spaces available in the mile-square city. (Hoboken has only 8,900 on-street spots and issued more than 14,000 permits last year.)
Comparing 2009 and 2014, the number of residential parking permits in Hoboken has fallen from 17,305 to 14,689, according to city spokesman Juan Melli. Melli said the city does not have accurate numbers for the intervening years due to duplicate counting of permits as the city transitioned a new system. However, he said even the inaccurate numbers showed a gradual decline over the last five years.
While the statistics suggest a true culture shift among segments of the Hoboken population, private entrepreneurs get some of the credit too.
Besides the 42 spots in the city occupied by Hertz’s “Corner Cars,” which residents can reserve by the hour from their computer (gas and insurance costs are included), ZipCar has 26 cars in the city, and Enterprise placed eight in the last two months.
In addition, residents can call up private drivers using the Uber and Lyft applications on their phone. And newcomer sRide allows for carpooling via smartphone.
Meanwhile, the city has maintained or rolled out additional programs aimed at both visitors and residents running errands in town. Last fall, Hoboken upgraded its entire fleet of Hop Shuttles, which circle the city every half hour on set routes, and in February, the City Council voted to extend a pilot-tested weekend valet service utilizing municipal garages for a full year.
For the Zimmer administration, sacrificing 42 spots to Hertz was more than worth it. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the city, 24 percent of Corner Car members said they got rid of a car or did not purchase a new one as a result of the program. Based on the city’s most current numbers for Corner Car membership—over 4,200 in January 2014—that could mean at least 1,000 fewer cars parking in Hoboken due to the program.
“Conservatively, the data shows that there are several hundred fewer privately-owned cars in Hoboken as a result of car sharing,” said Melli.
The city has seen similar success with a new valet service that ferries cars to vacant spaces in municipal garages on weekend nights.
Over its 90-day pilot period last fall and winter, the valet service temporarily removed 1,145 cars from city streets, according to city Transportation and Parking Director John Morgan.
In addition, because residents paid for the valet service, the trial generated over $9,000 in revenue for the city. In February, the City Council voted unanimously to extend the service for a full year and expand the number of valet stands from two to six, though they are still concentrated downtown.
“People like the idea of someone valeting their car,” Morgan said. “They’re willing to pay for it and we get revenue out of it for space that would not be used normally.”
Morgan provided the City Council with letters from five local business owners reporting positive feedback on the valet service from their customers and expressing hopes that the program will continue.
Uber: Heavy lies the crown
Uber is unquestionably the king of the Hoboken ridesharing market, having experienced phenomenal growth since its lower-cost UberX service was launched in the city 17 months ago.
The company saw a 78 percent increase in total trips in New Jersey between November and December 2013, its first two months of full service in the state, according to internal documents obtained by Business Insider.
The same documents revealed that Uber made over $26 million in revenue in the New York metro area in December 2013. Extrapolated out, this data suggests that Uber makes upwards of $312 million in annual revenue from the tri-state market alone.
Just before the Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl, the company issued a press release announcing a partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and touting its virtues as local revelers’ designated driver.
However, the UberX service is illegal in Hoboken because it does not have to follow the local safety and inspection regulations to which other taxis are subjected.
But its convenience is so tempting that many residents use it anyway, and even Councilman David Mello made a video of himself using the service last year.
Hundreds of UberX drivers have been ticketed in Hoboken since local enforcement picked up last fall. These violations can come with up to $1,000 fines, but according to one Uber driver cited in Hoboken, the city has a standing plea deal that requires drivers to pay around $300, which Uber covers.
Despite the crackdown, which appears to be unique among Hudson County cities in its level of intensity, Mayor Zimmer has come out in favor of Uber – but wants the laws changed on the state level.
Last September, an Uber representative said the company was having “ongoing and productive discussions with New Jersey policymakers” regarding regulatory schemes for ridesharing in the state.
Evidently, those discussions did not come to an accord. When an amended version of the ridesharing regulation came before the New Jersey State Assembly Transportation Committee for a vote last month, Uber drivers protested outside the State House and company representatives suggested that Uber could leave the state.
“If the Assembly bill passes, Uber will be driven out of New Jersey, period,” said Uber spokesman Matt Wing.
Such a threat cannot be considered entirely idle. At the beginning of this month, Uber unilaterally suspended operations in San Antonio, Texas in protest of local regulations it considers too stringent.
In New Jersey, the core disagreement revolves around the in-between time when Uber drivers have their app turned on but have not yet accepted a fare. Uber provides contingent liability insurance as a backup to drivers’ personal insurance during that period, but the Assembly bill would require the company to provide a significantly higher level of commercial insurance.
The ridesharing regulatory bill passed the Assembly Transportation Committee on March 19 and may now be considered by the full body. State Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia, whose district includes Hoboken, is a sponsor of the bill and voted for it in committee.
A new competitor
Since March, Hoboken has had its own homegrown transportation app to go along with the panoply of high tech options available in the city. sRide, the brainchild of local entrepreneur Lakshna Jha, aims to do for carpooling what Uber did for taxis.
Passengers and drivers post their desired destinations within the app, which is available on both iPhone and Android, and can message each other through the system to coordinate rides.
Drivers who pick up passengers through sRide don’t get paid.
Jha says sRide is also ideal for large communal events like concerts or football games, which draw large numbers of people to the same place.
Drivers who pick up passengers through sRide don’t get paid, though the app can automatically split the cost of gas, tolls, and parking. For Jha, that is part of what makes the service unique and appealing.
Unlike Uber, which Jha called a “technology taxi company,” sRide is “the real ridesharing app” because it capitalizes on the gregarious, charitable, and environmentally conscious impulses of Hobokenites.
“It’s much more than saving money,” said Jha. “It’s all about connecting similar people and the social aspect of it.”
According to sRide spokeswoman Stacy Mello, the app is the first of its kind and launched exclusively in Hoboken.
While sRide does not conduct full background checks for drivers, it does run every name through the sex offender database. In addition, passengers must rate their rides, and the aggregate ratings of drivers are public.
While Jha said most users are currently planning ahead, posting rides at least a day ahead, she hopes the service will be as instant as Uber once it hits a critical mass of users.
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.