The Shift office at 701 E. Bridger Ave. looks exactly like what you might expect from a Downtown startup. There are brightly colored walls and comfy couches, a liquor cabinet and a wooden rack charging two electric skateboards. Whiteboards everywhere are covered in scrawl, and in a long, communal room with the overhead lights turned off, staffers sit facing away from their desks in the comfortable repose of the laptop set. A poster on the wall reads, “F*ck this. We can do it better.”
At first glance, it’s hard to tell what “this” is. There’s a tech component, sure, but beyond the slightly vague slogans and the kid wearing a face shield and tinkering with a circuit board, there isn’t much to suggest what kind of shift we’re talking about. Until you go downstairs.
There, in the first-floor parking garage where gleaming Smart cars, Chevy Volts and Teslas fill the rows, the story of Shift starts to unfold.
Shift first made headlines in April 2013, when the startup—then known as Project 100—announced its opening act: the purchase of 100 Tesla Model S cars.
Websites from CNet to TechCrunch to GigaOm covered the company’s bold entre onto the tech scene, suggesting that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh—who made a large personal investment in Shift—wanted Downtowners to give up their personal rides to share his electric luxury cars.
It made for some saucy headlines, but on the Shift website, founder and CEO Zach Ware writes that the initial focus on the Teslas missed the real story, “like focusing on the carpet order for a massive art museum.”
If that reads a bit grandiose, it’s by design. Like so many startups launching today, Shift isn’t aiming for small gains and mild conveniences. On Ware’s CEO blog, the 33-year-old entrepreneur pours out manifestos promising to change lives, rebuild systems and alter whole communities: “Our purpose is to remove friction from people’s lives so they can connect with places and people more easily. We do that now by building systems that move people. While our business looks like transportation, our purpose is higher. We don’t redesign flawed systems, we build entirely new foundations.”
In person, that bombast fades into enthusiasm born of personal experience and hopeful theorizing. It’s about connecting people, Ware says, talking fast like there are a thousand ideas wrestling to get out of his head.
He doesn’t mean digitally, through a social network or with an app that reduces your friends to tiny profile pics and 140 characters or less. Ware wants to connect you physically to the people and places you care about through a seamless system of shared bikes, cars and rides that will put Downtown Las Vegas at your fingertips.
When Shift launches in October, its fleet will include almost 100 vehicles—sleek electric Teslas, tiny Smart cars and Chevy Volts rolling in straight from the production line—along with 102 bicycles distributed among nine Downtown stations. Shift team members will offer rides, and the first of multiple shuttles will run on loops through the neighborhood according to customer demand.
“Our platform is not ‘get rid of your car,’” Ware says. “It’s providing ways to connect that your car could never provide.”
When transportation experts talk about personal vehicle ownership and car sharing, they don’t talk about providing connection or eliminating friction or making the residents of urban high-rises a little more comfortable.
They talk about greenhouse gas emissions and infrastructure issues, about cost of ownership and fossil fuel needs. They look at the developing world buying more and more cars, and they throw up their hands in protest: There just isn’t room.
According to the World Bank’s most recent data from 2011, the U.S. has approximately 786 motor vehicles per 1,000 people, 403 of which are passenger cars. That’s at the top end of the spectrum, but it’s nowhere near as high as countries like Iceland or Liechtenstein, which have 646 and 744 passenger cars per 1,000 people, respectively.
In fact, car stats in the U.S. have come down slightly over the past decade. But in most countries, the World Bank shows the numbers moving unquestionably in the other direction. China, for example, had just seven cars per 1,000 people in 2000; 11 years later, that number was up to 54.
Already, transportation accounts for 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, a number likely to rise as more people around the globe get behind the wheel. Add in overburdened roadways; the rising cost of car ownership; historic traffic jams in Brazil and China that have stretched more than 100 miles and lasted up to 11 days; and the basic inefficiency of personal vehicles, which sit unused for many hours every day, and it becomes clear: We need to learn to share.
Zipcar founder and transportation expert Robin Chase has known this for a while. She launched the car-sharing company in 2000, after a business partner saw a similar model in Germany and brought the idea home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and today she's the CEO of Buzzcar, a "peer-to-peer car rental" program that taps personal vehicles.
Chase immediately recognized car-sharing's massive potential. “I was building Zipcar for world domination,” she says sincerely. When reporters asked early on where she saw the company’s future, she told them: “I see it having an antitrust lawsuit with the U.S. government, because we’ll be in every major city as the dominant platform.”
Fourteen years later, the lawsuit hasn’t materialized, and Chase has long since left Zipcar, which sold to Avis in 2013 for $500 million. However, her visions of grandeur for car-sharing companies have largely come to pass. In 2013, 3.3 million people were members of such services, according to Forbes, with platforms like Car2Go, City CarShare and RelayRides offering a range of options. Zipcar is in 27 major metro areas, more than 350 universities, 40 airports and five countries as of September 4, and Dan Curtin, Zipcar’s VP of new markets, says the company is expanding all the time. It just launched in Houston and is preparing to place a fleet in Dallas. It already has vehicles at McCarran Airport, and Curtin says Zipcars will be arriving soon at UNLV.
When the first Shift members take the first official drives this October, they’ll begin by telling the company's app some basic information: how far they plan to go, and whether they want to drive, ride or bike.
Based on the answers, Shift will match members to the appropriate vehicle. Maybe you’ll zoom away in one of Elon Musk’s sleek electric sedans, which start at $69,900 and get up to 265 miles per charge; maybe it’ll point you toward the Smart ED, a cute electric two-seater made by German company Daimler. Inside the core service area of Maryland Parkway to the I-15 and Charleston Boulevard to the 95, Shift promises a ride or a car within five minutes or less.
Ware swipes a small plastic card over the windshield of a slate gray Tesla and its doors unlock. Unlike some car-share companies, Shift’s vehicles don’t require key exchanges or advanced reservations. Everything about the membership-driven program is designed to be easy on the user, the complexity hidden on the back end, so you just get in the car and go.
“I love seamless systems,” Ware says. “As a child, my dream job was to run an airline or be an air traffic controller.”
Shift users will pick from various membership levels, from the $25 per month “insurance policy,” which includes unlimited bike usage and à la carte drives or rides, to an unlimited package that hits around $450 monthly, an eyebrow-raiser but still less than the cost of a personal vehicle, gas and insurance, for many. (Users won’t need personal insurance, that’s covered.)
For that price or less—Ware says few people will need full access—Shift aims to cover all of your transportation needs and end constant calculations about how to get where you’re going.
That cuts to Shift’s guiding philosophy: “If we can eliminate the psychological barriers in your mind between you and what you want to do, your life will change,” Ware says.
The CEO points to himself as Example A: In 2010, Tony Hsieh tapped Ware to transform the defunct Las Vegas City Hall into a new campus that would make Zappos employees happy enough to deliver happiness to customers 24 hours a day. Ware moved into the unofficial Downtown clubhouse, the Ogden; set up an office across from the new campus; and lived his life primarily inside a few square blocks.
But a year and a half ago, Ware moved to Juhl, a mid-rise building on Fourth and Bonneville, 0.9 miles from his old digs. And it changed everything. “I live a completely different life now. When I go home, I go home. I’m isolated, quiet. I’m nowhere near as accessible or out and about.”
Moving less than a mile had erected psychological barriers that deterred Ware from grabbing a drink with a friend or going out in the evening. “And what about the people who live in a one- to two-mile radius? Psychologically, they’re part of a neighborhood that they’re not really a part of.” Time, money, convenience, “all these things stand in between you and doing the things you want to do.”
If Shift can eliminate some of the transportation hurdles in place Downtown, Ware imagines a future where urban living can cover a wider swath of land, where developers can build high-rise apartment buildings a mile or more from the urban core and residents will still have simple, seamless access to all of a city’s amenities.
The right system can change everything.
As Chase says, if you miss the bus or get bogged down in traffic, your whole day can be ruined. “Transportation is in fact the center of the universe. Opportunities rely 100 percent on how you can get there.”
So, if you build a fleet of convenient, covetable vehicles, will Las Vegans share nicely?
Pull up the Valley in Google Maps, and it’s clear that Shift’s biggest obstacle might be Las Vegas itself. Where older cities like New York and Boston grew up with people walking everywhere, our Valley is wide-stitched, with snaking highways and fast, multi-laned roads.
“We evolved in the age of the automobile, and our Valley’s laid out that way,” says the Regional Transportation Commission’s David Swallow. “You have fairly large roads, higher speeds and much greater distances between where people live, where they work, where they recreate.”
For comparison’s sake, Swallow likes to overlay a map of the island of Manhattan over a map of Las Vegas. Manhattan is 22 square miles; the developed area of the Las Vegas Valley is 500.
However, thanks to the higher density and smaller streets of Downtown Las Vegas, he sees the neighborhood as an ideal launching pad for Shift. “They’re trying to enable folks to live and work in Downtown without having a car, and providing the right transportation choice based on the trip. That’s a really neat model,” Swallow says, pointing out the efficiency of sharing assets like cars, shuttles, bikes and parking.
That last one could be a barrier to getting car-sharing to explode here: We have too much parking too cheap; too many free valets and empty garages.
When Zipcar was starting, Chase recalls, her brother would make projections on where they should place vehicles based on the cost of parking. The biggest hurdle to getting people out of private cars is free parking at work, she says. “There’s no incentive to think about alternatives.”
Chase points to Aspen, Colorado, as a prime example. That city has had car-sharing for a decade, “and I think it’s been subsidized and failing for a decade because everyone needs cars. … People who need cars to get to work will own cars and will get in them to do everything.”
Population density is also crucial—in order for car-sharing to be efficient, the cars need to actually be shared. Zipcar’s Curtin says it takes 35-70 members to keep a vehicle busy. “If there’s no density there, it’s probably not going to sustain the fleet.”
Chase adds that success lies in “fine-grained specificity,” figuring out exactly who is going to use the vehicles and how. Grand philosophies and cutting-edge cars are nice, but will they be enough to get committed members signed up and driving, month after month after month?
“We see Las Vegas as an incredible test market,” Ware says, “but growth is limited by density. We know that for the first couple years we may not be profitable in Las Vegas.”
He says Shift is already in talks with other, bigger cities about bringing the company’s unique mix of bike-, ride- and car-sharing to their urban streets and centers. And the baby-faced CEO points to a famous quote by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos about the willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time in order to do something big and truly innovative.
“A lot of people don’t understand why we have memberships, don’t understand small cars, don’t understand the pricing model,” Ware says. “I’m okay with that.”
Ware has been telling the story of Shift for over a year now. He’s gotten so good at delivering its clever message of urban connection that it rolls off his tongue—a little different each time, but always succinct, bold and easy to digest.
He says that vision has stayed remarkably stable during the past 18 months, but a lot has changed. Shift has had to build its software and hardware in-house, becoming, as Ware puts it, a “reluctant hardware company.” They’ve considered different vehicles, from souped-up golf carts to mopeds to a weird concept car that involved a driver with passengers sitting around a table, as if eating a pleasant lunch. At a certain point, I can’t help asking the obvious question: Does Ware still own a car?
“I’m done with needing to own a car,” he says, but the answer is yes. “Now it’s more of a tinker toy. A 15-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser is not the right vehicle for quick trips around the city.”
Ware and his team are betting the Smart car is the right vehicle, and Smarts will make up most of the fleet at launch. This week, all of the cars will be in the field for beta testing by staff and invited participants, making sure that the app, the dashboard boxes, the in-car screens and the parking stations all function the way Ware has been imagining.
And that’s what seems to irk him the most right now: his own imagination.
“Every idea I have is in some way powered by BS, because we’ve never done this before,” he says, sitting in the tiny lobby. “We make so many decisions every day based on our theories.”
It’s the first time I’ve seen the young CEO’s confidence waver, and for a second his high-speed tech speak slows to a more gentle reflection. “There’s a lot of danger in ‘I think,’” he says. “I’m really hungry for the data, so we can stop saying ‘I think.’”
And then, he’s on to the next thought.
Meet the motors
Tesla Model S
Best for: Longer trips with friends who think of the VIP section as their second home.
You might consider these sleek electric beasts Shift’s flagship vehicle, since the announcement of their purchase launched the company into national headlines. Plenty of members will just want to drive the car, which Car and Driver said is “not just a good electric vehicle, it’s a good car.” Plus, the magazine lists one of the “highs” as “splendor.” How can you argue with that?
Best for: Errands with a crowd that appreciates the environment.
Think of the Volt as electric gone practical—we’re talking price point, style and a gas engine that kicks in when you need it. No one’s ever used it in a pickup line—and it takes 9.1 second to go from zero to 60—but this is a car that gets the job done sustainably. Just don’t take it drag racing.
Best for: A stop-and-go day where parking might be a problem.
This fun-size super compact makes up most of Shift’s launch fleet, and the company’s betting it’s the smart choice for quick jaunts in the core Downtown service area. Added bonus: You’ll never have trouble parallel parking again.