A new partnership between Metro Transit and Hourcar is allowing members of the car-sharing organization to use their Go-To transit cards to access Hourcar vehicles anywhere in its metro area network, making it easier to seamlessly switch between transit and car sharing.

Hourcar users previously had to carry a specially designed key fob to unlock their pre-reserved vehicles. Now, they can just scan a card reader and drive.

While the change to a single-access smart card might seem insignificant, it is an incremental step that could pave the way to a more integrated system that would allow commuters to use one card to pay fares, fees and more easily hop from one mode of transportation to another.

Go-To cards already allow commuters to switch between the metro area's transit systems, but allowing commuters to use one pass to access multiple forms of transportation is unprecedented in the United States, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association.

"The Twin Cities is one of the pioneers," he said. "We are now more geared to a quick card flash and cashless travel. Why have one flash pass for one mode of travel and another for another. Can't you have one card that works for all of them? Many people are aspiring to this and there is a movement toward this. The rest of the country will be watching the Twin Cities."

"We wanted to integrate with Metro Transit since so many people already have these cards, and we wanted to make it as seamless as possible to switch between modes," said Megan Hansen, Hourcar's program manager. "You might not always have your keys with you, but you always have your transit card. We think that is how we will get more people to give up their car and switch to a multimodal lifestyle. Having one card, especially one you already have, will make it really easy for people."

The partnership officially goes live Monday, but some Hourcar members were able to take advantage of it during a soft launch last week.

Jean James, of St. Paul, took a Green Line train from downtown St. Paul to the Spruce Tree Center at University and Snelling avenues where on Friday morning she tagged her Go-To card to a transponder inside a maroon Honda Civic, then drove off for a day of shopping in the Uptown area of Minneapolis.

"This is going to be nice," said James, who after 40 years of owning a car gave it up last year and now uses public transportation and Hourcar to get around. Pointing to her Go-To card, she said, "I always have this. The buses, the trains, the car, now I can just swipe things. I can keep track of all my transportation costs in one place."

Hourcar, a program of the Neighborhood Energy Connection, is believed to be the first car sharing organization in the United States to enter into a partnership with a transit agency, Hansen said.

Hourcar used a federal grant administered by the Met Council to upgrade technology and install transponders capable of reading chips that are embedded in Metro Transit's Go-To, U-Pass, College Pass and Metropass cards in vehicles parked at 60 locations.

Hourcar has about 2,500 members in the Twin Cities, and a survey conducted by the car-sharing organization last year found that nearly 90 percent of members have transit cards.

That, plus the fact that Metro Transit has allowed Hourcar to park vehicles at some of its light-rail platforms and transit centers over the past 10 years played a role in the newly formed partnership, said Adam Mehl, a marketing development specialist for Metro Transit.

"The goal of the project is to reduce barriers to accessing different modes," Mehl said. "They [Hourcar members] already have Go-To cards in their pockets. Now they can have as close to instantaneous access to a vehicle without having to have Hourcar send out a special key or fob. It lowers the barrier of entry."

There have no plans to expand to other car-sharing services, such at Car2Go or Zipcar, in the metro at this time.

Total integration is still a long ways off, Guzzetti said, as there are technical and financial policy issues to be ironed out. For now, Hourcar members will still have to pay their rental and membership charges separately, but the partnership could be the seed of something to blossom. Eventually it could lead to integrated fare payment, Mehl said.

Greg Griffin of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute called the move "innovative" in the United States and sees the concept as one of many ways transportation systems are beginning to merge. He pointed to a pilot study in Berkeley, Calif., tackling parking and congestion issues by offering free bus passes and deeply discounted car sharing benefits to get people to leave their cars at home. The goal was to remove or reduce the pay barrier to the use of transit and car sharing. Results showed an increase in transit use, bicycling, car sharing and a drop in the number of people who drove alone.

"The availability of car sharing options reduce people's anxiety about using other modes other than a personal car," he said.

Frank Douma, a research fellow who studies transportation policy at the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the goal of being able to use one card for multiple transit uses has been the holy grail.

"The idea of car sharing works best when you give tools for mobility in the transportation toolbox," Douma said. "Otherwise you deal with two applications and two fobs. Now with one-stop shopping, you can choose the mode you want at a particular time, you are more confident that you can give up your car. This lowers the hurdles to overcome."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768