Buffalo Car Share's Survival Struggle

by / May. 27, 2015 10am EST

Since 2009, Buffalo Car Share has managed a fleet of vehicles for use by those who can’t afford a car or simply prefer to live without one.

In a 2011 report on the organization’s progress, Buffalo Car Share listed as its goals “social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic justice.” 

Lack of access to the basic necessities of life—groceries, medicine, work—can be remedied through affordable transportation, thereby giving the underprivileged a footstep up into a more fulfilling and productive life.

The variety of uses of the Buffalo Car Share fleet points to its capability to deliver on its goal of social equity and economic justice. With regard to “environmental sustainability,” the report found that 34 percent of its member respondents reported “either giving up a vehicle or deciding not to buy one after becoming members.” At the time, Buffalo Car Share estimated that its 400 members had taken 109 cars off the road—a number that has likely increased as Buffalo Car Share’s membership ranks have more than doubled since 2011.

Gary Mentley, 70, a retired millwright, has been a member of Buffalo Car Share for three years. A former car owner, he told me that, living just on his pension and social security checks, he no longer wanted to carry the burden of car payments; unfortunately, he added, “I couldn’t live without a car.” Buffalo Car Share fills this void for him.

Mentley uses Buffalo Car Share to care for his mother, who is 98 and lives in East Aurora. Car Share allows him to check in on her and keep up her property.

“I’ve got no other way of getting out there. If I was working I’d own a car.”

Despite the pressing concerns of his own life, Mentley isn’t blind to the larger impact of Buffalo Car Share.

“All kinds of people use the Car Share. I meet them all the time. They’ve got a van for the handicapped.”  

(Jennifer White, communications director for Buffalo Car Share, told me that they currently have one wheelchair accessible van and are “determined to increase access to transportation to seniors and people who are disabled.”)

Earlier this month, people like Gary, who rely on the service, were thrown a curveball after Buffalo Car Share’ carrier, Philadelphia Insurance, chose to terminate coverage.

Michael Galligiano, executive director of Buffalo Car Share, says that, so far, no insurer is willing to fill the role vacated by Philidelphia. The high-frequency with which the Buffalo Car Share fleet is used puts a potential carrier at greater risk, even though, throughout its near six years of operation, Car Share has proven to be a safe proposition. Nonetheless, NYS insurance law, in its present configuration, is not suited for coverage of a “shared commodity.”

The Car Share boasts 19 vehicles—including two minivans, a pick up truck, and electric and hybrid vehicles—and 900 members, although White estimates that it’s reach is greater than just those members.

“Thousands of others have used the service to better their lives somehow,” she wrote in an e-mail. “They have used Car Share to get themselves out of homelessness, find jobs, get to medical appointments, see friends and family, enjoy a night or a day out, just for example.”

Over half of Buffalo Car Share’s members make under $25,000 per year—a number Buffalo Car Share claims is much higher relative to other operations in the car sharing industry—and includes the elderly, underprivileged (66% of Buffalo Car Share members report that they cannot afford a personal vehicle), college students, minorities (50% of Buffalo Car Share members are people of color), and young people. 

Tanya Percy, a recent Buffalo State graduate and manager at the Lexington Co-Op, is one of those young people. She said she got rid of her car after it became a “money-hole.”

“I didn’t drive it enough to justify the expense.”

Using her bike to make her way around the city, she turned to Buffalo Car Share for grocery shopping trips and occasional trips to the suburbs.

The Car Share is “good in a pinch” she said, rattling off a string of benefits: more convenient than traditional public transportation, easy to plan around, and inexpensive.

She says that the loss of Buffalo Car Share would mean a “gross inconvenience” for those who choose living the city lifestyle. 

Right now, Buffalo Car Share is scrambling to find a way out of its insurance crisis, identifying four possible solutions: 1) inclusion into a car sharing bill currently under review by the NYS Senate Insurance Committee; 2) absorption by a larger entity (the NFTA has already turned down a proposal from Buffalo Car Share), such as the city, county, or “large for-profit car sharing” organization; 3) finding a progressive insurance carrier to cover Buffalo Car Share at a high premium; and 4) becoming self-insured.

“The Office of New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, as well as the New York State Department of Financial Services are supportive in helping us find a solution,” Buffalo Car Share wrote in an e-mail to its members.

At the time of this writing, Buffalo Car Share is working to get language added to NYS bill S4444, which would allow the service to continue to operate. The stated purpose of the bill is to “provide insurance coverage for vehicle owners and renters participating in a personal vehicle sharing program.”

“We may recruit support from members for bill S4444 to get passed if language is included that will allow Buffalo Car Share to exist and operate in NYS,” White wrote in an e-mail. “Honestly, even if language isn’t included for Buffalo Car Share we hope it gets passed anyway because it increases options for alternative transportation in NYS.”

For now, members must wait nervously for the outcome, knowing that the Buffalo Car Share’ coverage expires on June 15.

Dana Saylor, an artist and historian, uses Buffalo Car Share to travel to meetings and conduct research. She investigates property history for private homeowners, businesses, and architects. Saylor, who also helped organize the City of Night art event for the past three years, called the Car Share “a lifesaver.” 

She knows that, should Buffalo Car Share close, she would no longer “have independence or regional access” necessary to carry her career foreword.

“I wouldn’t be able to be the entrepreneur I am.”

Saylor concludes that the potential closure of Buffalo Car Share says something worrisome about social priorities—especially in a city like Buffalo, whose citizens increasingly likes to regard themselves as urban-oriented.

“We, as a culture, want to invest in sustainable transportation,” Saylor told me. “We should be expanding the car share, not allowing it to close. Local leaders need to step up.”