You know what they say about cars: can’t live with 'em, can’t live without 'em. Insurance premiums, exponentially increasing gas prices, and that sinking feeling that you’re releasing more carbon into the air — blech. At the same time, hauling a set of bookcases home from Ikea on a city bus — also blech. That’s why a growing number of people are latching on to the latest alternative to owning a car: car sharing. For people living in cities with good public transport, it seems like the perfect compromise, so on a recent trip to Seattle I decided to give it a whirl.
The concept behind the operation is simple: pay a minimal yearly membership fee, then an hourly rate for a vehicle when you need one. After applying online, Flexcar — one of two large car-sharing companies establishing hubs around the country — sent me a card in the mail, which I activated on their Web site. Within 24 hours I was approved to drive any of around 150 cars, trucks and SUVs parked in neighborhoods around Seattle. I made a reservation online for a Honda Civic Hybrid parked at a coffee shop two blocks from where I was staying, a satellite communicated my reservation to the car, and two hours later I was unlocking the silver sedan by holding my card against a panel on the windshield. The keys were in the glove compartment, the interior clean, and I was soon off to get my laptop repaired.
Car sharing started in Europe in the mid-1980’s, where it’s estimated the average car sharer reduces his carbon dioxide emissions by about 40 to 50 percent. It was first embraced stateside a decade later. At first, interest in these services was tepid, but over the past few years the phenomenon has mushroomed. Membership in car-sharing services has increased 300 percent since 2003, according to Dr. Susan Shaheen, who researches transportation trends for the University of California at Berkeley. Now about 20 sharing services operate around the country. Many are small and local, but Flexcar and Zipcar — the largest companies — operate in nearly a dozen cities (Flexcar is concentrated in the West, while Zipcar has a larger presence in the East) and both are planning on expanding into new metro areas in the next year, thanks largely to new investment. America Online cofounder Steve Case and former Chrysler chief executive Lee Iacocca both invested undisclosed amounts in Flexcar in 2005 and are on the board of directors; GE Commercial Financial Fleet Services invested $20 million in Zipcar last May.
Both companies have similar membership costs, with an annual fee of about $50 and an hourly rate that starts at around $8 (rates are lower if you’re on a monthly plan). Insurance and gas are included in the hourly rate, making these cars a very economic choice for town driving (see below).
The green benefits of car sharing can be huge. Not only are many of the cars low-emission hybrids, but it’s estimated that at least five private vehicles are taken off the road for every shared car. Around 20 percent of car-sharing members choose to sell one car, and an even larger number opt not to buy a car they were thinking about purchasing, according to a recent report commissioned by the Transportation Research Board. Conservatively, that means 5,960 private cars have been taken off the roads for the 1,192 shared cars currently around the country.
Car sharers also drive about 44 percent less than car owners. Owners have already paid the fixed costs of maintaining a vehicle, so for them, it’s no big deal to drive across town on a whim. But because car sharers pay by the hour, there’s a financial incentive to drive less, so they usually walk or take the bus to work or the corner store, and clump their driving errands into a few hours during the week. The average Flexcar member only uses a car for 10 hours each month.
Skyrocketing fuel costs are likely a factor in the growth of car sharing, but Shaheen speculates that people are also becoming more aware of services through word-of-mouth and advertising. Zipcar is also placing more cars within cities where they already operate, making it easier for members to reserve a vehicle when they need one. Currently there are more than 100,000 members in different programs around the country. About 12 percent of the market is business members opting out of maintaining a private fleet, but the majority of members are private households, usually single or married couples with no kids. Many college students have signed on, and the bulk of members are in their 30s or younger.
Still, the spike in membership doesn’t necessarily mean thousands of people are totally ditching their cars — at least not yet. Some of the recent growth in membership has been due to what Shaheen calls “mobility insurance.” These members already own at least one car, but would like to have access to another in case theirs breaks down, or if they need a pickup truck to handle big jobs. But Shaheen also speculates that as sharing services place more cars in denser networks within citie — particularly in neighborhoods — members might opt to sell their private vehicles.
I may very well be one of them. Finished with my errands, I parked the car in its reserved spot at the coffee shop and locked her with a swipe of my card. No worries. No blech. Finally, I thought, a transportation compromise we could all live with.
BE GREEN, SAVE GREENBACKS
Monthly cost of owning a car and driving 10,000 miles a year*:
Full-coverage insurance $77
License, registration and taxes $45
Finance charge $60
Gas, maintanance and tires $126
Monthly cost of car sharing combined with public transit in Seattle:
10 hours per month using Flexcar $94
Two-zone, peak-hour PugetPass $72