Eric Trager

is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Pennsylvania

It's no secret that the City of Brotherly Love is rather unfriendly toward car owners.

Indeed, car thefts are frequent (more than 11,000 in 2007 alone); parking is hard to find; and auto insurance rates are among the highest in the nation - second only to Detroit.

With these concerns in mind, more than 50,000 Philadelphians have joined PhillyCarShare, a city-owned, pay-per-hour car-sharing service that puts hundreds of cars within reach of its members - without the hassles associated with owning a car.

Unsurprisingly, the recent surge in gasoline prices has only boosted PCS's member rolls. In part, this is the result of PCS's misleading advertising: PCS claims that members do not pay for gas, but has long charged its members 9 cents per mile. Until recently, this nominal charge seemed harmless. After all, with cars available for around $5 to $9 per hour on weekdays, what was an extra $1.80, say, for 20 miles of afternoon city driving?

But last week, PCS added a new 7 cents per mile "surcharge" to its price structure. Once again, this was misleading advertising - drivers are now paying 16 cents per mile for service, as the "surcharge" was simply added to the 9 cents a mile that PCS customers were already paying. Naturally, PCS justified this sudden 78 percent markup as a necessary response to gasoline prices that now exceed $4 a gallon.

The math, however, tells a different story.

Pooling all the data on PCS's Web site (

www. phillycarshare.org

) regarding its fleet and averaging each car's city and highway miles-per-gallon ratings, it turns out that the average PCS car gets 39.85 miles per gallon. This impressive figure is the result of the large number of Toyota Priuses in PCS's fleet - hybrid cars that, according to PCS's Web site, get 51 to 60 miles per gallon. With gasoline at $4.10 a gallon, it appears that the average cost of driving all of PCS's cars is about 10.3 cents per mile - again, less than PCS's new prices.

Yet even this figure is deceptively high. After all, PCS customers are far more likely to drive its most fuel-efficient cars, as PCS's least fuel-efficient cars cost an extra $2 to $5 per hour to drive. As a result, the actual cost per gallon for PCS to fuel its fleet is likely to be less than 10 cents per mile - although, to be fair, we cannot know precisely how much less without statistics on the extent to which PCS customers choose its cheaper Priuses over its more expensive Dodge Caravans and Toyota Tacomas.

Of course, PCS's public responsibilities include remaining financially sustainable. Its decision to raise its per-mile charges from 9 cents is thus justified.

As a city-owned nonprofit, however, PCS must also provide fair - and

transparent

- pricing for its services. For this reason, PCS's new 16-cents-per-mile charges are nothing short of price-gouging. This exploitative behavior comes at a time when so many other costs are rising, making it all the more unbecoming.