What’s white, has four wheels, two doors, and is shaped like the pills I took for that really bad sinus infection?
If you said “a BlueIndy car,” congratulations! You win a free one-day membership to the BlueIndy car-share service. Though you’ll still pay $8 for each 20-minute trip, plus $.40 per minute for every minute you drive beyond that.
Confused? So was I. Unlike the Indiana Pacers Bikeshare, which it resembles in terms of being a new and innovative transportation option for Indianapolis, the BlueIndy electric car share is a bit more complicated. But that’s understandable. Whereas you don’t need a license or insurance to ride a bike, both are required to drive a car—even a cute, electric one. As for the pricing structure, it’s at least a little easier to understand once you realize its objects: to encourage use, to keep cars continually returning to stations, and to make BlueIndy financially viable.
But I was confused—and very, very sweaty—as I began my first BlueIndy drive. You see: I wanted to get my car right away. And if you’re starting a new subscription, and you need the car immediately, you must visit an enrollment kiosk.
Currently, there are only two in the city, and for some reason they are both located within a few blocks of Monument Circle (and each other), though there are enrollment points coming soon to the airport and to Butler University.
To enroll at a kiosk, all you need is a driver’s license and a credit card. The enrollment kiosk is teardrop shaped and made of translucent polycarbonate, and at noon on a clear September day, it is as bright and as hot as the surface of the sun. This would be no big deal, really, except that you have to stand in the enrollment kiosk for five to ten minutes while teleconferencing with a BlueIndy rep whom you can hardly see because of the blinding noon light.
On the bleary, washed-out screen, my rep reminded me somehow of the Cosima clone on the BBC show Orphan Black. But as all I could see was the shape of her, that may have been partly my imagination.
Cosima’s presentation was flawless, but at times I found her difficult to understand over the din from the street. If you enroll at a kiosk, I recommend very early mornings or late evenings when the light and the traffic noise are low, or perhaps in thirty years or so, while everyone in the city is watching the next supermoon eclipse.
If you’re planning that far ahead, you might as well start the enrollment process online before heading to the kiosk. It’ll save you a few steps. Read through the terms and conditions (tucked in the fine print at the bottom of the website) before you go. It was uncomfortable to do it in the enrollment kiosk, via touchscreen, while being observed by a hip, though perfectly friendly, TV clone.
If you want to start a yearly membership and you are able to plan ahead a bit, you can enroll entirely online and get your card in the mail. Right now, as an incentive to early adopters, you also get six months of membership free. But again, this doesn’t mean you drive free. Membership costs are separate from the usage fee, which is the cost to travel between BlueIndy stations. These are assessed by time, and are most expensive with a daily membership and least expensive with a yearly commitment.
To choose a car, you take your membership card to a reservation kiosk (this one is completely out-of-doors and is really just a fat pole with a screen on it). All BlueIndy stations are equipped with one of these. To start, you simply hold your card against the card reader. The reservation kiosk has video instructions to guide you through the process of taking and returning a car.
After the system assigns you a vehicle, you touch your card again at the charging station, which allows you to unhook the charging cable and retract it. Touch your card a third time at a point on the driver’s side window to unlock the car. Your usage begins when the charging cable is fully retracted, not when you begin driving the car: something to keep in mind if you have a tendency to sit there idling for a few minutes, maybe checking your email or your makeup. The meter is running. But there’s nothing in the car to show how much time you’ve used up, a fact that probably serves BlueIndy’s bottom line as much as it does the safety of Indianapolis pedestrians.
The cars seat up to four adults and have a LATCH system for child safety seats. There’s a small storage area behind the rear seats that’s accessible by hatch. No bike rack, but it would accommodate a folding bike. You have three gears: forward, reverse, and neutral. Top speed is 65 miles per hour. You are permitted to drive on the Interstate, but if you go more than ten miles outside I-465, a customer service rep will contact you in the car to direct you back inside BlueIndy’s service area.
Once you’ve reached your destination, you reverse the process. You can check parking availability and even reserve a parking space online at BlueIndy’s website, or through their app. A free space has a green light atop its charging station. A reserved spot will be blue, so if you’ve reserved a spot at that station, park there. Once you’ve parked in a valid spot, reconnected the charging cable, and locked the car, you’ll get a text message telling you you’ve successfully returned the car and what the cost of your trip was.
There are some taxes tacked on, too—17%, comprising 7% sales tax, 4% Indiana rental tax, and 6% Marion County supplemental auto rental excise tax. About taxes, BlueIndy’s Terms and Conditions also has this to say:
Note: BlueIndy is providing a car sharing service which We believe to be materially different from a rental business, however it is Our understanding that rental taxes of the State of Indiana and Marion County will be required to be paid to the State and County even though We believe they should not apply to car sharing operations.
BlueIndy’s financial deal with the city has been controversial since May of 2014, when the Mayor officially kicked off the partnership with the car share’s French parent company, Bolloré Group. Indianapolis Power and Light asked the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to approve a 44-cents- per-month rate hike to pay the costs of constructing and powering the charging stations, but the request was rejected.
The Indianapolis City-County Council has been critical all along of the deal the mayor made with Bolloré and of the parking lost for local businesses and residents, even voting, at one point, to have the project’s pilot cars at Washington and Meridian Streets towed. The mayor responded that the police surely had better things to do and that towing the cars would essentially constitute theft. Apparently, the police agreed with at least one of these propositions. The cars stayed put.
There are some legitimate concerns about how the deal was put together and whether the council and the city administration were properly respected. If there was wrongdoing, it should certainly be addressed. But at this point, hundred of these charging points have been installed and dozens of cars are already in service. According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, the cars are significantly lower in emissions than their fossil-fueled counterparts (even allowing for the fact that they’re charging on a grid that’s two-thirds powered by coal). Once 500 of these cars, or more, start roaming the streets, that’s a big potential impact, especially on Knozone action days.
BlueIndy may not do much to stem the use of autos by out-of-county commuters, but for those living in downtown or midtown, they might be a viable replacement for at least one vehicle. They’re also a potential equalizer for those who can’t afford the payments, insurance, and maintenance of owning a vehicle, or for those, like me, who just hate the hassle.
Right now, my fifteen-year-old Toyota is sucking up between five hundred and a thousand a year just in maintenance costs. It may have a few more years left. But if another five- or six-hundred-dollar repair should come due, I’m open to the idea of becoming a car sharer.
And—since I seem on track to become Well Done’s official transportation tester—I’ll probably become a Red Line bus rider, too. That will free up at least one old-school parking space down here in Fountain Square.
Just be sure to get here early, if you’re thinking of coming for lunch.