Gaia Kile

Gaia Kile
Ann Arbor
Community Car Coop

Tottered on: 29 March 2006
Temperature: 54 F
Ceiling: cloudy
Ground: firm
Wind: S at 5 mph

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TT with HD: Gaia Kile

HD: Alright, so you ready?

GK: Yeah!

HD: Have we achieved some sort of equilibrium here? This going to work for you?

GK: Works for me.

HD: As much as I would like to begin by exploring Larry Kestenbaum's views on the appealing nature of your name to voters in the Ann Arbor area, I'd prefer actually to get down to business in terms of the car co-op, because you're part of an existing and operating car sharing arrangement []

GK: We're not operating at the moment.

HD: But metaphorically speaking, it's fair to say that the motor's still running, you've just shifted into neutral, and all you need is some replacement members, and then you can throw it back into first gear?

GK: That would be a reasonable way to put it. Into first gear.

HD: So how many replacement members do you need to replace the ones who moved away?

GK: It really comes down to an issue of, How many people does it take to sustain a car co-op? And the general kind of industry number is, I think, approximately 10 people per car. You don't want to go much above that.

HD: And you've got one car?

GK: At this point we have a van and a car. And we've been offered another van. The car we have is ...

HD: ... is this the Saturn?

GK: No, we had a Saturn originally.

HD: That was the car that was featured in the Observer article a couple of years back?

GK: Yes. And that one died. I'm going to scoot back just a little bit here.

HD: That's fair enough!

GK: So that one died, and then we were donated, well, we inherited a van. A friend of mine passed away. And then we were donated another car. The van, we had an operation for a while, but it was a little bulky ...

HD: So this was a full panel van.

GK: This was a 150 Ford Econoline. And then the other one is a Toyota something or other from the 80's. And I have to say the vehicles are relatively easy to come by is my experience. One of our problems, we've had a number of people say, I'd love join the car co-op, but someone just gave me a car!

HD: Gee, that's never happened to me!

GK: Well, if your readers would stop giving cars away to anything but car co-ops, we'd be better off!

HD: So getting a vehicle or even vehicles is not the challenge, it's getting people who are willing to say, Sign me up! So what does signing up entail cost-wise? Are there annual dues, with a per use fee on top of it, or how does it work?

GK: Our system is, there's three ways to get money, right? Or actually four ways. a one-time membership of $50 and then an annual membership fee, which is based somewhat on your driving record: if you have zero points it's fifty dollars. Not being the bookkeeper at the moment, I'm not sure what the tiers are that we agreed on, but the more points the more it is ... I think we charge half or two-thirds of what your points would add to our insurance ... And then we have an hourly rate and a mileage. I think we recently decided to up it to $4 an hour, and I think it's still at $.20 a mile. That's likely to fluctuate considerable as gas prices fluctuate.

HD: The mileage cost, is that meant to cover gas, or are you expected to fill the car up on each use?

GK: No, it's meant to cover the gas, it's kind of all-expense-paid. We were in operation over a year, but in healthy operation for a good solid year. And we figured out a lot of things and we didn't figure out a lot of things. We didn't have kind of mid-range break-down expense. We were always just kind of bare bones in terms of expenses and we were surviving really off of three active members for a while. But one was taking some long trips, right? Would drive up to Lansing to visit his brother every once in a while.

HD: With the co-op car, you mean?

GK: Yeah.

HD: So that put a stress on the accessibility of the car?

GK: No, that was where a lot of our revenue was coming from.

HD: Oh, I see, so that was a good thing!

GK: Yeah, actually, availability has never been a problem and then again the magic 10 number is based on the experience of other car share institutions, where at 10 you get about 95% you can schedule it whenever you want.

HD: So pretty much in your experience while it was in healthy operation, scheduling really wasn't an issue? So how many days out would you have to plan ahead?

GK: Oh, 15 minutes.

HD: That's pretty good. But you do have a pretty slick web interface for reserving the car. Are there rules about how far in advance you can reserve?

GK: As it's structured, no.

HD: So you could say, Okay I'm going to reserve the car ...

GK: ... every Tuesday from now to eternity, or I don't know, the computer probably eventually runs into something.

HD: But there's not a policy against it. So if somebody wanted to reserve the car for the month of July, that would be possible, but other co-op members might point out that that's not really in the spirit of this.

GK: It would be cost-prohibitive for them. That is to say, it would be more in their self-interest to rent a car for that period.

HD: So the hourly charge applies overnight as well?

GK: I think we have a 12 to 6 free window. But again, in terms of cost, car share doesn't make sense for the person who's going to commute for 8 hours. It makes sense for a person who needs it for errands, by and large. I mean, maybe if you commute 8 hours twice a month, and you enjoy the convenience of not having to go to a car rental place every time, then maybe it makes sense. But from a strict kind of bottom line thing, my understanding of the calculations is that it ...

HD: ... just wouldn't make sense. Just to review then, there's 50 bucks for the one-time membership fee ...

GK: ... and fifty bucks annual. More if you have points.

HD: So starting now for a year, we're looking at 100 bucks plus the mileage and time.

GK: And again, 100 bucks for the first year, if you have no points. One of the mistakes we made was starting out and saying you had to have no points. People inquired, and we had to say, No! and then we wished we hadn't, because we have a system for dealing with it now.

HD: Well, we can debunk that myth right here. You can still have points and be in the co-op. I guess there's a maximum threshold set by the State of Michigan?

GK: I think what we said was, you can have up to four points or five points. If you call the membership office you can get the exact number.

HD: So 100 bucks plus points for the first year in administrative stuff and then we get down to usage, which you said was now $0.20 a mile and what was it you said per hour?

GK: I think it's $4 an hour.

HD: So people can do their own math and figure out what their transportation costs would be like over the next year. There's some obvious disqualifying profiles and one of them that I had wanted to ask about was points on your driving record, because I actually got my first speeding ticket in my life last year around this time on Huron River Drive. So that's not a deal breaker. I was trying to think of other possible common misconceptions people might have, where they might think, This car sharing co-op wouldn't be good for me, or They wouldn't take me. And so let me just offer them up to you. "I'm a Republican, they wouldn't take me."

GK: Why wouldn't we?!

HD: "I'm a Lutheran"

GK: I was raised Lutheran.

HD: Oh, but Lutherans wouldn't necessarily get any preferential treatment?

GK: No, I don't think so.

HD: "I had a speeding ticket." Well, we covered that and it's not a deal-breaker, it just costs a little more.

GK: Yeah.

HD: "I have to listen to my own tunes and I wouldn't like other people's presets on the radio."

GK: I don't know. I suppose if that's enough to stop you! Other people will either preset or not.

HD: So it hasn't been an issue so far?

GK: Well, as I say, with three or four active members ... I have sometimes had something come on and, Hey, I don't want to listen to country music!

HD: But it hasn't made you say, Dammit, I'm gonna quit the co-op.

GK: No!

HD: How about, "Where the car is parked is too far away from where I live."

GK: That's a big one. And that's why membership is a challenge, too, right? Car share programs tend to fare a little better in bigger cities, where you have denser population. Where we've tried to locate the car is relatively close to downtown. We're looking at moving even closer to downtown. We've had informal conversations with various people at the City about getting a designated parking spot.

HD: In one of the structures?

GK: Maybe. Maybe on the road. But something we could have some security about. So we could get it downtown and know we're keeping it downtown. We've also had informal conversations with a developer about developing a car share in a building they want to put up and ...

HD: So as far as the parking spot, those conversations would be with the DDA?

GK: Or with the City itself. When we first got started, there was someone from the getDowntown program, who'd come to our meetings and who would brainstorm with us a bit. That was before we had a vehicle on the road. We've had a very informal conversation with, in addition to a developer, an organization downtown, that might want a vehicle, but not full-time, to work out a deal: you need it for various excursions and we need it for various excursions. So putting private individuals together with some organization would be something we'd try to work out. So I think we're looking for creative avenues.

HD: But in the shortest possible term it's really more about getting some more bodies who are willing to sign up for the co-op.

GK: Probably, yeah. As I say, you know, we lost our biggest driver. The two of us don't make up for what he was doing. My guess is that my use is what would be about average for a car share user: one or two five-mile trips once or twice a week, sometimes more, a couple of errands on top of that.

HD: It seems to me that a potential member of a car-sharing co-op falls into one of two categories: somebody who's got a car now and is weighing a possible future giving up that car; or else somebody who doesn't have a car and who would like to have access to a car. Or I guess there's also households that might be contemplating going from two up to three cars and see a car share arrangement as a possibility to avoid having a third car in the household.

GK: In fact, there was someone who called to inquire who had a 19-year old, who they were thinking about getting a car for. You know, on your list, age is a potential problem also. Because below 23, and we're working out these things so it may not be insurmountable, but below 23, your insurance rates go up, sometimes rapidly. So my thought in a situation like that: what you want to do is sign up one of the adults for the car share. And then there's an extra car when you need it, you just have to coordinate it.

HD: Yeah, even though the University of Michigan with all its students provides this huge pool of potential members, their sheer age and the way the insurance industry analyzes them, creates this hurdle.

GK: Zipcar, which is one of the big names, I think has had a conversation with the University. They said to the University, We'll do it if you cover the insurance. And the University said, No, thanks!

HD: Yeah, That's what we were hoping you would do!

GK: But actually we're having conversations with the Graduate Students Association and we've put it out there for them.

HD: One of the questions I wanted to ask you in terms of longer term plans: you brought up Zipcar; and there's also Flexcar, which is another franchised operation that's going great guns in larger metropolitan areas. Is franchising out somehow part of the possible realm of opportunities for this particular co-op?

GK: Well, if I were to put out a vision, our first challenge is to get Ann Arbor saturated with vehicles. I don't know what that is. Maybe 5000 vehicles? ... optimistically. But how much further beyond Ann Arbor do we want to go? Certainly I would think that Ypsilanti would be within our potential range. Or the area served by the AATA. So maybe even someday that'll mean Chelsea and Dexter. What I was interested in was developing similar organizations, co-ops, right? Maybe this is what you mean by franchise. Co-ops don't really franchise. A franchise implies an ownership structure in which you can have owner A and owner B. In our situation we're all owners. We might be supportive of other co-ops forming, right?

HD: You'd have a template or a startup packet.

GK: There are such things, you know. You go on the web and you find car share manuals and so on. But the thing that we have that is really nice is the scheduling program that was developed by one of our members. Who I think still claims proprietary use of it, but would potentially be willing to work with other organizations. What I'd like to add on at some point is, I'd love to form a non-profit specifically for funneling vehicles to car shares and/or funneling donations of vehicles to car shares. There are basically three models for car shares: there's the private corporation; there's the non-profit organization, Philadelphia, for example, has one of those; then there's the co-operative organization. And it tends to go: Big, Medium-size, and Small. And I would love to figure out the ingredients to make the co-operative become the Big. But we're not there, yet. And I think there are probably some structural reasons for that. Probably the main one being access to capital.

HD: If there were a venture capitalist who came knocking on your door and said, You know, I've got a bag of money and here's how I'd like to put it into the A-squared C-cubed or however you say it, I assume you'd be receptive to that?

GK: Well, again, if they said, And so I want to appoint the Board of Directors and X, Y, Z, I might not be.

HD: So the co-operative arrangement itself is an important ingredient as far as you're concerned.

GK: Certainly as far as I'm concerned.

HD: But it's not the case, as best I can tell from reading through the prose on the website, it's not the kind of anti-car, granola-crunching rants, liberal-left tracts that sometimes people might associate with the notion of a co-operative.

GK: Weeell ... co-operatives are organizations that are owned by their members, with the purpose of serving their members in a democratic fashion.

HD: So basically, that's all you have to buy into in the way of attitudes. And the arguments for or against joining are about, Does it make economic sense for me? So you're not asked to buy into any other philosophy than just the co-operative as the rubric for administering it.

GK: This is the question about Republicans again! No, you're not asked to buy into any philosophy. It's an open membership, which is, of course, another principle of co-operatives. You know, if I go into Wal-Mart, and maybe I'm not now, because there's an active boycott against Wal-Mart. But prior to that boycott I might go in, because I'm looking for something. I don't necessarily have to buy into its organizational structure and its unfair labor practices. In fact, oftentimes I don't have a choice. Maybe it's not Wal-mart, but it's some place and that's the only place I can get what I need. Buying into the organizational structure of a place you use services from is not a requirement of our economic system.

HD: Actually, I looked recently for someplace to buy a football, and wound up buying it at Meijers ... I remember thinking at the time, Where else am I going to buy this? I looked around downtown briefly and thought, Well this is pointless! Maybe there is someplace downtown where you can buy a football, just a regular football that you can chuck back and forth.

GK: Maybe the local football seller will contact you and sit on your teeter totter.

HD: Yeah, Dave, why didn't you drive downtown and find a parking space and come to my store for your football? Which allows me to ask you about parking. You know the DDA conducted this survey recently, which was not the parking study, it was more an instrument to find out how well the DDA itself as an organization was doing. But it had some items about parking and downtown development on it, and I have a copy of the survey questions. I thought it would be interesting to serve up a couple of those questions to you.

GK: Okay.

HD: Okay, "Thinking just about the parking including the street parking, structures, lots, meters, etc. how would rate the cost of parking? Would you say, Excellent, Very Good, Average, Fair, or Poor?"

GK: Well, like many car share participants, I'm one who doesn't use the car a whole lot to go downtown. And so I'm usually there as a pedestrian or a cyclist downtown. Because of that, I'm spoiled. So any parking costs seem outrageous.

HD: Okay, so you'd say, Poor?

GK: Well, I'm not sure. Because if I think of it from a policy standpoint, then probably they're not enough, because people are driving downtown in higher numbers than they should. They should be parking on the outskirts of town and taking the busses in.

HD: I think you'd be a terrible survey respondent.

GK: I know. I hate Likert scores!

HD: They want you to pick one of these! Let me give you, then, an open-ended question: "Have you noticed any improvements or changes that make it easier to live work or enjoy downtown or make it more pedestrian-friendly."

GK: Well, I was originally skeptical about the changes on State Street.

HD: The one-way to two-way?

GK: Yeah, and what they did on Liberty and so on. But I think that makes cycling a little easier. Some of the things they did there and the addition of those cycling arrows around town, those have helped. It's hard to notice sometimes some of the smaller things. Some of the things that I would like to look forward to, are things like the Greenway. And certainly I've had plenty of conversations with people about what a lovely idea it would be to close down Main Street at some point, or Liberty at some point, and make it a pedestrian walkway.

HD: Main Steet Area Association has been, I think, consistently opposed to that idea.

GK: I understand that. I think there would be some advantages for them, if it were done properly. That is to say, I think we could actually increase parking by putting parking at the ends. And I think that we could manage traffic in a way that would be workable, but I'm not an urban planner, so don't listen to me!

HD: Since you mentioned the Greenway. There was this much-maligned survey item that was printed in the News, which seemed to be trying to get at too many different ideas in the same item, and that item was, you're supposed to agree or disagree with this statement: "A dense downtown areas is a good development strategy, because it works against urban sprawl and it also encourages a mix of independent as well as major retailers." So I want to skip over that question and get to the one about green ...

GK: I like that question.

HD: You want to express agreement or disagreement?

GK: I think I agree with that.

HD: Slightly or strongly?

GK: I'd like to say strongly. I'll probably get slammed for this somewhere.

HD: Well, that item on the survey had a companion item, and it goes like this, again you're supposed to agree or disagree: "More park area or green space is needed in the downtown area, even if it must reduce the amount of commercial space downtown." Do you agree, disagree, or are you neutral about that?

GK: Now you really get into, Where is downtown? The Greenway that I've heard discussed, has been, I understand to be right at that edge. I don't know that they necessarily need to be mutually exclusive. And I'll give you an example, actually. I don't know all the details of this plan and/or whether it still exists on paper any more. I made reference earlier to inheriting the van. I inherited it from my friend, Rich Ahern, who was an urban planner in town. Actually, he did urban planning years ago and then became an artist. But when he was an urban planner he, at one point, came up with a design for the parking lot next to the library. And his plan was to create a double-layer of parking: so from the two streets you drive down onto one, then you drive up onto the other. Because it's on a slight hill anyhow. And then above those levels you'd have townhouses on either side in a row and then some park space in the middle. So this increases housing, adds parking, and adds park space all in one blow.

HD: So the park space, we're talking about some sort of atrium?

GK: Sure, yeah, something like that, but that's downtown parks. Is it Liberty Plaza that's catty-corner from there anyhow? The park space would be just a continuation of Liberty Plaza.

HD: The park space would be on the street level or ...?

GK: On street level or maybe up a little. Again, I heard this plan described to me years ago. It caught my fascination, because it does all these things.

HD: Surely it must be lying around somewhere.

GK: Many years after I heard about it, I was at some city planning meeting and happened to be sitting next to someone, and we found that we both knew Rich. He was kind of a planning geek and he suggested to me that that plan was still so significant that anything that gets talked about has to explain why it can't be as good as that. ... ... But the point being: does park space and other urban development have to compete? Are there ways in which you can interestingly splice?

HD: So on the whole, if I had to analyze everything you've said in terms of Agree, Disagree, Neutral ...? Is there anything else you think warrants some discussion before we dismount? About car sharing or parks?

GK: Well, I do have to respond to the Larry Kestenbaum thing.

HD: Okay, we'll bookend the conversation with mention of Larry Kestenbaum.

GK: When I was on the ballot, I had changed my name to Gaia Kile. And my previous name was actually addended underneath it as an a.k.a. When you submit the papers they say, Have you changed your name in the last X number of years?

HD: Just to clarify, you changed your name to run, or you just happened to have changed your name in the past?

GK: I'd informally changed my name many many years earlier. And then legally changed my name in '96 when I ran a write-in campaign for sheriff. And then got on the ballot as a Green in 2000. So his argument that people voted for me because they thought I was a woman, with a name like 'David' underneath it, I don't think that holds up.

HD: Ha! Got it.

GK: I think they voted for me, because I was running as a Green. And you know that's a scary thing for a Democrat to say, you know? He doesn't want to think about those Greens. But if the Democrats would more fully embrace instant run-off voting, they wouldn't have to worry about that so much.

HD: Well, that certainly brings some clarity to it. Fair enough. So can I snap your picture?

GK: Sure.