If you rarely use your car but feel you have no choice but to pay all the insurance, maintenance, and parking fees to keep a car around for unexpected occasions and emergencies, look for a car-sharing program to liberate you from onerous car-ownership responsibilities. While Zipcar is the biggest name in car-sharing, many local car-sharing programs have popped up across the U.S. —  and are seeking reluctant occasional drivers who'd rather rent than own.

The latest of these companies just rolled into my town. Called LAXCarShare, this new car-sharing service officially launched May 17, and already has five cars available for hourly rental in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Venice with plans to add cars in three more locations soon. Now, if ever Angelenos have an emergency, they can check out a car online or via a mobile device, walk or bike over to the nearest LAXCarShare car, and start driving in minutes!

If you’re unfamiliar with car sharing, here’s how it works. After signing up and becoming a member of the car-sharing program, you get a little keycard. Simply book a car, swipe the keycard in front of a sensor in the car’s dashboard, and the doors will open. Grab the keys from the glove compartment, and start driving. Just make sure to return the car where you picked it up and do so by the deadline. This way, you have access to a car when you need it without paying for permanent ownership.

LAXCarShare’s founder is Melissa Hebert, who actually used to work for Flexcar, another car-sharing program that was purchased by Zipcar. Unfortunately, when Zipcar acquired Flexcar in November 2007, the cars in all L.A. locations were pulled — except for those near USC and UCLA. That left Flexcar members like myself in a lurch — and some employees of Flexcar like Melissa without a job.

So Melissa decided to start her own company, using the lessons learned from her days at Flexcar. LAXCarshare’s current car locations, for example, are close to those that Flexcar used to have before the buyout, with hopes of capturing Flexcar’s ex-members.

But the LAXCarShare service has some key differences. For one, the service is cheaper. Basically, would-be members pay $50 — a $25 application fee for the DMV screening process and a $25 annual fee — to get a LAXCarShare keycard. After that, it’s pay as you drive — $7 per hour or $60 per day — with gas, insurance, and roadside assistance included in the fees.

For another, LAXCarShare only offers one type of car: The Nissan Versa Hatchback. “People wanted a car that was more affordable, easily accessible — and they wanted a program that was going to stay in town,” says Melissa, who learned through her time at Flexcar that car-sharing customers simply wanted practical transportation, not luxury vehicles or SUVs.

Melissa also expects that her knowledge of the specific transportation challenges of the city as a born-and-raised L.A. native will help make LAXCarShare a successful local enterprise. After all, Melissa’s passion for car-sharing goes beyond a love of the environment or a hate for gridlock, though those issues certainly play a role.

“I saw [car-sharing] helping people save money. I saw it as a model that can be incorporated into the welfare system to help transition people off of public assistance,” Melissa says. “So I saw it as being bigger than just reducing cars. It helps people across the board for a lot more than just that.”

With LAXCarShare, Melissa hopes over time to help instigate socio-economic changes in the broader Los Angeles population. Started with the help of a private investor, LAXCarShare’s actively working to expand in Los Angeles, both by attracting individuals and by working with fledgling car-sharing initiatives pursued by the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

While I was a Flexcar member, I was able to get rid of my car — but that car-free period ended for me not too long after Flexcar got bought by Zipcar and the shared car near me disappeared. Now, I may sign up again — and hopefully get car-free again. Are you part of a car-sharing program? Which one is it, and how do you like it?

Cars: Why own when you can share?
LAXCarShare, a new car-sharing service in Los Angeles, seeks occasional drivers who don't want to own and maintain cars they rarely drive.