Obie, You Can Drive My Car
Ohio’s first car-sharing program launches at Oberlin College

by Kelly Viancourt

Driving to Cleveland and back—in an environmentally responsible way—is an ongoing need for Andy Barnett ’07 and his Oberlin bandmates.

It’s 4:30 p.m. and the end of orchestra rehearsal on a Friday afternoon. Andy Barnett quickly packs up his clarinet and rushes out into the frigid February air, jogging down the street toward the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, There, in the parking lot, sits a brand new, Oberlin-red Toyota Prius.

From his coat pocket Andy digs out a silver remote-entry device and waves it past the front windshield, signaling the doors to unlock. He sinks into the charcoal-gray fabric seat and reaches for the glove compartment, which holds the ignition key and a stack of pre-paid gas cards. Easing the car out of the parking lot, he then heads to the jazz studio, where three other students are waiting with a trombone, a bass guitar, and drums. “We have to pack smart, but we can all fit,” Andy says.

A few minutes later, with Andy at the wheel, the students begin their 45-minute commute to downtown Cleveland, all the while savoring that new-car smell. Having access to transportation is pivotal to the rising success of these young musicians. Performing regionally as the Oberlin Gateway Band—a five-member jazz/gospel ensemble committed to peace, justice, and God—they are being recorded tomorrow for their debut CD.


Left: Andrew deCoriolis ’07, Ryan McKenzie, and President Nancy Dye celebrate the launch of CityWheels in February.

Andy, who plays piano with the band, is particularly excited about the ride; he is now known as the first customer of the first car-sharing program in the state of Ohio. The Prius, along with a red Scion xB wagon, were delivered to campus a day earlier for the launch of CityWheels, a start-up, Cleveland-based car-sharing business that chose Oberlin as its first destination. Credit for that goes to student members of Oberlin’s Environmental Policy Implementation Group (EPIG), who campaigned for seed money from the College to partner with the company.

“Oberlin has the perfect conditions and the perfect culture for car sharing,” says CityWheels founder Ryan McKenzie, a longtime advocate of green transportation. “Most of the time, students and residents can easily walk or bicycle to their day-to-day destinations. But everyone needs a car occasionally, and this is an easy, economical, and environmentally friendly way to obtain one.”

President Nancy S. Dye says that part of the College’s sustainability program is to find ways to show students that they don’t need to own cars. “This program takes an important step toward greening our campus and community,” she says.

Car sharing, a European phenomenon that made its way to the United States a little under a decade ago, has seen great success in 17 U.S. cities, spurred on in part by large, national chains such as Zipcar and Flexcar. In most cases, drivers become members of a car-sharing organization and pay a modest hourly or daily fee to access a car, typically parked in a dedicated space nearby. At Oberlin, membership is open to anyone 21 and older who has had a clean driving record for the past three years. The $8.50-per-hour price includes gas, insurance, maintenance fees, and road service. Reservations are made through the company’s web site.

Matthew Adler ’07 and Hannah Neprash ’07 get comfortable in the Toyota Prius.

“Since all CityWheels vehicles are either gas-electric hybrids or other fuel-efficient models, they significantly reduce the environmental impact of driving,” says Andrew deCoriolis ’07, an EPIG member credited with initiating the CityWheels partnership. An environmental studies major with a passion for transportation issues, deCoriolis also played a major role in the College’s recent purchase of hybrid vehicles for security officers and mail delivery.

“Transportation is at the heart of our sustainability efforts. The ways in which people move around will play a incredibly important role in shaping and defining America when cheap and easily portable oil is no longer available,” he says.

Once the car-sharing program catches on—CityWheels currently has 35 members—McKenzie and deCoriolis hope to add a biodiesel truck or van to the Oberlin fleet. And as the company begins expanding car-sharing into the wide-open Cleveland market, all eyes will be on Oberlin.

“We are a very small organization, and we depend on community champions,” McKenzie says. “The Oberlin students are true community champions—they were very motivated to bring this to campus as an environmental alternative to owning a car and as a way to get around.” His hope is that Cleveland-area residents will pick up on the idea, too, particularly those in densely populated neighborhoods with access to bus and transit service. “Car sharing can act as the missing link,” he said during a February radio segment on Cleveland NPR station WCLV. “You can rent a car, but it’s a hassle. With transit, the choices are better in some locations than others. Taxis are notoriously unreliable. And having access to a car for a limited amount of time has not been an option in Ohio.”

Expanding slowly and deliberately, McKenzie will introduce cars into the Cleveland neighborhoods of Ohio City, Coventry, and Shaker Heights this spring. “Our goal is to have a car in a variety of walkable neighborhoods, parked within a five to 10 minute walk from our customers,” he says.

Convincing a car-dependent city the size of Cleveland to adopt car-sharing is no easy feat, but it’s certainly not impossible. In fact, car-sharing veteran Chris Bradshaw ’66, co-founder of Vrtucar (pronounced virtue-car), an eco-friendly, car-sharing service in Ottawa, Canada, helped his own organization grow from three cars shared by 42 members, to 25 cars shared by 500 members in six years.

There’s also Kate White ’93, a founder and former co-director of City CarShare in San Francisco. Launched in 2001, it’s now the largest nonprofit car-sharing organization in the country, with 4,000 members and 90 vehicles. New applications have skyrocketed in the past year with the rising cost of gas. A City CarShare press release says its members have saved 1 million gallons of gas since 2001.

As for Bradshaw, he couldn’t be prouder of Oberlin’s role in kicking off the car-sharing movement in Ohio. “My buttons are popping off my shirt,” he says. “Oberlin is among the few colleges in the nation to do things before they enter the mainstream of society. This is just another feather in its cap.”

For more information, visit