Closing the Transportation Gap

Shared mobility startup Envoy launching in Sacramento

Back Web Only Mar 21, 2018 By Karen Wilkinson

There’s a mile-long stretch of Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento that lacks public transportation and has just one tree to provide shade for pedestrians. During the summer, this concrete jungle between 21st and 47th avenues turns into a heat trap in a community already considered disadvantaged due to its economic and air quality levels.

“Our infrastructure is broken, that’s putting it lightly,” says Nathan Ulsh, executive director of the Franklin Boulevard Business Association, a business and property owner group.

The gap in bus and light rail service runs north to south. Along that stretch are grocery stores and other services accessed by the area’s residents, Ulsh says. “When it’s 110 degrees in the summer time, people walk because they need to,” he says.

It’s communities such as these that Los Angeles-based shared mobility startup Envoy aims to reach as it rolls into 15 apartment complexes in the Sacramento area, where it will install charging stations and provide two cars for residents’ use. Envoy, founded by two real estate developers in 2017, recently was awarded a $1.5 million grant through the California Energy Commission to provide its services to disadvantaged communities in the greater Sacramento area and parts of the Bay Area.

Envoy has forged a successful path in Southern California, where it’s gained the support of undisclosed investors and raised more than $500,000. An apartment complex in Marina Del Rey, a small, pricey oceanside community in L.A. County, became the first property to partner with Envoy. Since deploying vehicles in April 2017, the company has seen monthly increases in usage and membership, its co-founder says.

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“Our goal is to influence how people move, one community at a time,” says Envoy co-founder Aric Ohana, during a meeting with members of the Franklin Boulevard Business Association. “This can be a lifestyle change.”

The idea is simple enough — Envoy will install EV charging stations and provide two electric vehicles at each apartment complex. One vehicle can be rented at a subsidized rate for personal, by the minute use, for up to three hours. The other vehicle can be rented at a subsidized rate and used for the gig economy, such as Lyft, Uber and delivery services such as Postmates. Use of both will be through an online reservation system, so first-requested, first-served. Details on how the user will prove he or she is using the vehicle for the gig economy will be released when Envoy fully launches, Ohana says.

The hope is each vehicle could provide two full-time jobs or 10 part-time jobs, Ohana says. “We think if we can hit those types of metrics, it has positive effects for those types of communities.”

Specific locations are still being nailed down, but so far Cottage Estates in the Arden-Arcade neighborhood is on board, as is Renaissance Park Apartments in Davis.  

“If we look at lower-income communities, they drive older vehicles,” Ohana says. “Electric vehicles are not on their mind as a next vehicle. I think it’s going to add so much to the life of those communities.”

The vehicles — Ohana says Envoy is working closely with Volkswagen, Fiat/Chrysler, Jeep, Maserati, Ram and Dodge to purchase vehicles — will have a minimum range of 125 miles, with DC fast-charging capabilities. That range translates to about two hours of driving, with a 30 minute break to charge, the cost of which would be covered through different vendors, Ohana says.

Envoy’s launch in Sacramento ties in well with the “Green City” initiative by Volkswagen’s subsidiary Electrify America, in which $44 million in investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, car-sharing services, delivery fleet and education is set to occur.

Charging stations at workplaces and multi-unit dwellings will be installed in Sacramento, Electrify America recently announced, which hosted its first “Discover and Drive” event in early March in an effort to get people to drive zero-emission vehicles such as the Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Bolt, BMW i3, Nissan Leaf and Volkswagen E-golf, along with the battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell powered Honda Clarity models.

Electrify America also recently announced it’s seeking input and proposals for zero emission buses and shuttle mobility in Sacramento, “from entities that have a background handling fleet services, such as the operation or administration of a type of bus, van, shuttle, or micro-shuttle,” a press release states.

Envoy hopes to have its installation underway in March, with vehicles ready to use by April in a good portion of the Sacramento properties, Ohana says. Along with the lower-income communities, Envoy will expand to other communities to deploy its shared mobility services, which will work under a different business model, and cost more for users.

“We are a startup company, so there’s a lot of investment,” Ohana says. “We’re producing monthly, recurring revenue, but we’re in the growth stage, so mostly everything is reinvested into the company.”

This is a year of expansion for Envoy, which foresees a few hundred vehicles in use in Northern California by the end of the second quarter of 2018, Ohana says. “We’re planning on moving quickly, and we’ve set the stage for that growth.”

The shared mobility service works best in more dense properties, Ohana says, so the more this model is adopted, the less-dense properties the company can move into. “People are already relying on Uber and Lyft as their main mode of transportation, and we believe this is a complementary service,” he says.

Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer says investments in shared mobility, electrified infrastructure and even autonomous vehicles can level the playing field in Sacramento, especially for underserved neighborhoods.

“For too long, disadvantaged communities reliant on traditional public transit have been excluded from benefitting from clean vehicle technologies and other technological innovations, let alone basic access, to improve their day to day activities and quality of life,” Schenirer says. “My colleagues and I have worked hard to collaborate with SACOG, RT and the private sector to pilot these efforts. We look forward to seeing these investments in our poorest and most needed areas.”