Green Initiatives: Washington, D.C.'s Vehicle Fleet Management Program Cuts Costs

DC Fleet Share program increases car sharing and eliminates unused vehicles.

by / August 18, 2009

When Washington, D.C., government employees need a vehicle from the city's fleet, they can now reserve one online and use a special card that unlocks and tracks the car. Besides making life easier for city workers, the DC Fleet Share program streamlined the district's fleet management, cut costs and increased utilization of the vehicles.

Participating agencies create an account, so their employees who choose to register receive a vehicle access card, which tracks who is using a particular car and which account should be charged. City vehicles are used in the program and were outfitted with a modem and card reader that are linked to the ignition and door locks.

Agencies forgo the cost of owning cars and instead only pay for the time in hourly increments their employees use the city's vehicles. The hourly fees incorporate the vehicle's purchase or lease cost, maintenance fees and fuel.

The district piloted DC Fleet Share in October 2008 with 29 vehicles located at four sites, and has since expanded it to 58 vehicles at eight sites. The city uses software from Zipcar -- a large car-sharing company based in Cambridge, Mass. -- to run the Fleet Share program, said Ralph Burns, vehicle control officer for the district's Fleet Management Administration.

Starting with the company's basic FastFleet platform -- a car-sharing program that utilizes a Web-based reservation system -- the district and Zipcar developed government-specific improvements, like changing the reporting functions.

Before the district enlisted FastFleet, the city motor pool was managed through a call-in system. If government employees needed to use a vehicle, they called the motor pool phone line, Burns said. Callers would tell an operator what time they needed a car and where they wanted to pick it up. They were issued passcodes to access a box that released the keys for the specific car the employee reserved.

The old system wasn't foolproof. Sometimes a key would be put in the wrong slot, so it wouldn't be released, Burns said. In other instances, the employees calling to reserve cars were directed into the voicemail system if no one was manning the motor pool's desk. Some city agencies also ran their own motor pools, in which someone who kept keys in a desk drawer would track cars by having employees sign vehicles in and out.

"We had been looking at many different ways to make the motor pool more accessible and easier to use. And we arrived at partnering with a technology leader, such as Zipcar, and finding that it had developed the technology, process and system that allows you to access your vehicles and really maximize the utilization rate of those vehicles over time," said Dan Tangherlini, city administrator for Washington, D.C.

Motor Reduction

Along with improving how often city vehicles are used, the city wanted to reduce the number of vehicles it owned. Burns said reaching those goals involved a one-two punch: He ran a program to identify vehicles that were underutilized, while simultaneously launching DC Fleet Share. "As we were taking vehicles away, we wanted to make sure the users had a place to go," Burns said.

When Burns was eliminating underused fleet vehicles, he was surprised to hear that the agencies thought they needed more cars. He also discovered that departments never shared vehicles if one needed an extra car for a day. "I think one of the benefits is now it's basically nobody's car, but it's everybody's car," Burns said. "One car is being used by three different employees in three different agencies during a day, so we're sharing these assets like we should be and the utilization has increased."

The city ultimately eliminated 360 vehicles from its fleet, bringing the total to approximately 1,200 (not including law enforcement vehicles, which aren't eligible for the program).

Cutting the city's fleet size will save more than $1 million annually, Burns said.

At press time, DC Fleet Share used 58 passenger sedans -- 56 of which are hybrids and two of which are powered by alternative fuel. Burns said the district's vehicles are parked at several large office complexes that are home to city government. Between 10 and 25 Fleet Share cars are parked at each site. After distributing the cars, Burns said the fleet administration contacted agencies to inform them about the program, how it works, what it costs and how the employees can use it.

Burns said the district received a special rate on the technology because it participated in the pilot, but he estimated that it would cost other municipalities $1,200 to $1,500 to outfit each vehicle. He also said the monthly fee to use the scheduling application ranges from $115 to $125 per vehicle, which includes an on-call service that can remotely unlock a vehicle or replace lost access cards.

Mobile Technology

After an employee receives an access card, he or she logs on to reserve a vehicle. The reservation is sent wirelessly to the appropriate vehicle's modem, which programs the car so only the person who made the reservation can access the car at that time. To use that vehicle, the employee places his or her access card over a card reader located in the top left corner of the windshield. If the information matches the modem's information, the doors and ignition are unlocked. After using the car, the employee parks it in the same parking spot and places his or her card over the card reader again to lock the car. It's then ready for the next person to use it.

"People like the fact that the car is already gassed up for them, it's easy to access and you can find them throughout the city," Tangherlini said. "At the administrative level, people like the fact that they're only going to pay for what they actually use and they find it is a way to gain efficiencies in their programs."

When workers are responsible for returning car keys, Burns said they might put them in their pocket and forget to return them. In the past, some cars could be put inadvertently out of service for a few days after someone forgot to return the keys and then was out sick. "With this new system, the keys are always in the car and people come and go as they want to, and it's so smooth and seamless it's incredible," Burns said.

Fleet Share's Future

Currently the fleet administration receives reports every 30 minutes that detail when a reservation is made, who made it, why the employee needs the vehicle (they are required to specify a task), when the vehicle was accessed, when it was locked and the mileage, among other specifics.

In the future, Burns said GPS functionality will be added to Fleet Share vehicles to provide additional information. He said the district is working with Zipcar on three tools that would utilize GPS: the ability to "ping" a vehicle, which means sending a command to identify its location; creating a "crumb trail" in which the car emits data packets every five to 15 seconds that creates a trail of latitude and longitude coordinates so the car's location can be looked up at a later date; and geofencing, which is creating a virtual perimeter that alerts the fleet administration if a car passes beyond it.

Tangherlini said GPS could be used to increase accountability if a citizen made a claim or complaint against the district regarding a vehicle. City staff would be able to determine who was driving the car at that time and whether it was in the appropriate boundaries of operation.

Once Washington, D.C., gains more information about how employees use their access cards, when they use them and which locations the cars are reserved from, Tangherlini said the city will be able to purchase additional vehicles as needed. "We've traditionally bought vehicles on an agency-by-agency basis, based on their need for access to mobility," he said. "What we haven't bought is that actual mobility when we need it."

Elaine Rundle Staff Writer