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News / Business

Car sharing becomes big business in Seattle, and the neighbors aren’t always happy

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: August 7, 2022, 6:00am
2 Photos
Christopher Ross Jordan, who goes by Ross, has dozens of cars and rents them like an Airbnb.  They includes these three ? a classic red 1966 Ford Mustang, the silver Mercedes SUV and Mazda SUV, at the curb. All go for about $150 a day.  The cars are scattered throughout the city. These are at his home, Wednesday, July 27, 2022.
Christopher Ross Jordan, who goes by Ross, has dozens of cars and rents them like an Airbnb. They includes these three ? a classic red 1966 Ford Mustang, the silver Mercedes SUV and Mazda SUV, at the curb. All go for about $150 a day. The cars are scattered throughout the city. These are at his home, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Ross Jordan tries to be a good neighbor. He owns and rents roughly 50 cars in Seattle, but keeps only six or so at a time in Laurelhurst, where he lives.

Yet as word got out that Jordan was a full-time “host” — renting vehicles via online platforms — he became the subject of that feared medium, the neighborhood blog.

“It has been reported that a resident, whose home is just off the Boulevard, is running a car sharing business, with about 20 cars sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, through a public app called Turo,” the Laurelhurst Blog wrote of Jordan.

Sidewalks are blocked, rights of way congested, the blog continued. At least three complaints have been filed against him with the city.

The blog post was incorrect, said Jordan, 41.

“It’s new economy meeting old economy,” he said. “It’s dynamic industry meeting conservative neighborhoods.”

Car sharing is not new to Seattle. Zipcar got its start in the early 2000s. “Peer-to-peer” car sharing, often described as the Airbnb for cars, came to the city in 2012, via Turo, and also operates on the Eastside.

But while the framework in Seattle is a decade old, the last year has seen a shift. Like Airbnb and Uber before it, car sharing is transitioning away from individuals making a few extra bucks on their underused sedan toward something more akin to a collection of franchisees. Although most hosts on Turo still own only one or two cars, an increasing share of the total vehicles and revenue are coming from people like Jordan — “small business” or “professional” hosts with an armada of SUVs, Teslas and sports cars for rent.

The shift is intentional, according to a Turo spokesperson and documents filed by the company with the SEC, and could ingrain peer-to-peer car rentals more deeply into Seattle’s transportation system — just as Airbnb has in lodging, and Uber and Lyft in taxi services.

So far, Jordan has not found a ceiling for demand: In the warmer months, 95% of his fleet is rented at any given time, he said. Based on the Facebook group of local hosts that Jordan moderates, he estimates a twofold to threefold increase in hosts like him in just the last year in Seattle. Turo’s data backs up his intuition: The platform has added close to 1,500 new hosts in the city in the last year, a 40% increase.

The business has been so busy that Jordan left a job at Amazon to focus full time on renting cars.

“I’m making more than I made in my tech job,” he said.

Pocked with disappointment

The history of car sharing in Seattle is pocked with disappointment. Car2Go, Reach Now, Lime — all crescendoed their fleets of cars through 2019 before leaving, nearly in unison.

Zipcar, which uses dedicated spaces, has proved remarkably resilient. And in 2020, AAA dipped a toe in Seattle with its free-floating GIG cars.

Meanwhile, two companies have run the peer-to-peer side of car sharing, in which individuals own and rent the cars from $50 a day for sedans all the way up to $700 for an Aston Martin. Turo arrived in 2012 and encourages multiday rentals. Getaround, which came in 2018, allows drivers to rent cars for hours at a time.

Both of their origins are in allowing people to make better use of a car that likely sits idle more than 90% of the time.

“It’s ultimately pushed a lot more people to think twice about car ownership and whether it makes sense to own a car,” said Nick Tenekedes, VP of marketplace at Getaround.

The platforms have always played host to entrepreneurial types who buy cars in order to rent them. Jordan started in 2017, after test driving a Tesla through Turo and seeing an opportunity, and said he was a rare breed in the city.

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But in early 2021, Turo made explicit its goal of creating more businesscentric hosts. “In the beginning it was just something that organically happened,” Steve Webb, VP of communications for Turo, said of hosts like Jordan. “But then we saw that they’re such a critical part of our business that we started intentionally fostering them” — offering incentives and online help.

In its January filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission to become publicly traded, Turo pitched potential investors on the plans to convert casual hosts into business hosts “to grow the supply of vehicles available to guests on our platform.”

The COVID pandemic has accelerated this transition. As rideshare and public transportation have lagged, car sharing is on the rise. Laid-off workers took to the platform to earn extra income just as locked-down residents sought refuge away from the city.

This happened as rental car companies, which Turo is directly taking on as competition, struggled to rebuild their fleets and the price of used cars skyrocketed. Turo’s revenue jumped 207% from 2020 to 2021, according to the company’s SEC filing.

In Seattle, Turo has added close to 40,000 active users in just the last year, from about 64,000 in July 2021 to 101,000 in July 2022.

Booked immediately

David Suh learned about Turo from his friend in Florida, who was bugging him to start renting cars.

“Why would I rent out my car? I need my car,” Suh answered.

Eventually, he gave it a try and his car was immediately booked — first for a weekend, then a week, then three weeks. For two months, Suh, who also works in the restaurant industry, borrowed a friend’s car because his was always being used by someone else. Suh then bought a car to replace the one he was renting out, but then he started renting that one, too.

By the end of 2021, Suh owned three cars and decided to go all in. He now rents 20, which he delivers himself. He hasn’t quite done the math on his profits, but two-thirds of the way through July his revenue was $50,000 and his bank account is growing.

“Everyone who comes here wants to go to Mount Rainier or Olympic National Park,” he said. He’s stocking up on Subarus and Jeeps.

Seattle takes a light touch toward car sharing. The city has permitted around 400 cars with GIG, said Becky Edmonds, shared mobility manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation. In June, the city announced a deal with Getaround to provide designated parking spaces for people renting their cars. Zipcar also still has its own spaces.

With Turo, the company is allowed to operate so long as drivers and renters follow the city’s parking rules.

Edmonds sees it as filling a gap in the city’s transportation system. “It means that sometimes families that would otherwise own two cars only need to own one or people decide to delay purchasing a vehicle,” she said.

State lawmakers passed new regulations on car sharing during this year’s legislative session, requiring certain levels of insurance for those renting out cars and placing certain liabilities on the companies themselves.

Hard to predict

Market researchers predict sunny days for the so-called “shared mobility” market, which includes bikes, scooters and cars for rent. By 2030, it could be a $731 billion industry worldwide.

But Adam Cohen, a senior researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said it’s challenging to predict the future of peer-to-peer car sharing. “It’s tough to say because travel behavior is still really shifting with the pandemic and we don’t have a good sense of where it’s going,” he said.

Jordan, the host, thinks more people will start buying cars so long as demand remains high. But it’s a treacherous field, he warned.

“I’ve seen horror stories where people don’t have good credit and get a 20% loan on five cars,” he said. Then they fail to account for depreciation and wear and tear on their cars and suddenly they’re stuck. Jordan’s confident in his business, which he closely tracks through software he wrote, but can see a time when the market becomes saturated, and some owners are hung out to dry.

The city investigated the complaints against Jordan and found he is not storing too many cars near his house. Investigators found plenty of parking on the street, said Michele Hunter, code compliance manager with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

Jordan believes the author of the neighborhood blog, who did not respond to requests for comment, confused cars parked by people heading to nearby Seattle Children’s hospital for his. He follows all the appropriate parking rules, he said.

Jordan isn’t spiking the football, but wishes his neighbors had reached out directly to him.

“I think of myself as a person who makes compromises and likes things peaceful,” he said.