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Zipcar and Beyond: Is a Car Share Right for You?

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Have You Tried Car Sharing?

woman locking car keys city businessOn our trips to see family, all of whom live in or near large cities, my wife and I often contemplate skipping the rental car -- but quickly come to our senses. For example, on a recent trip to Seattle, we scheduled visits to folks from Issaquah to Whidbey Island, with several stops in between, and there ain't no way to pull that off without a car. We stayed downtown, however, and for much of our visit we used the free bus system, the monorail and our own feet to get around. In the end, we truly needed the car only about three of the 10 days.

Car rentals can be very affordable, though, so no big deal, right? Not quite. Staying downtown added an unexpected premium to our overall expenses: parking the car. Our only real option was our hotel's $20/day valet parking service, and of course we tipped the valets each time they brought out our car, so we ended up paying an extra $25 or so each day -- almost double the car rental fee -- just to have occasional access to the vehicle.

On the 10-day trip, the parking added up to an extra $250 for which I hadn't budgeted. And if you factor in the days that we didn't need a car at all, in the end we probably paid out at least $400 for services we did not really use -- and 400 bucks is no chump change. There had to be another way.

A friend recently introduced me to Zipcar, a "car sharing" service currently available in 57 major U.S. cities and regions, 100+ U.S. university towns, and the international cities of London, Toronto and Vancouver. For a $50 annual membership fee, you gain access to all of these cars using a reservation system that is nothing short of state of the art (in fact, Zipcar is leasing its car-tracking technology to big cities with large vehicle fleets). Rather than having a fleet of cars centrally located in a single but remote location -- like an airport -- Zipcar has thousands of cars located throughout its service areas in commercial parking lots, on university campuses, in corporate centers and more.

How It Works
Rentals are available by the hour or by the day; rates typically start at around $6 - $8 an hour or $59 a day, and include gas expenses, 180 miles a day, 24-hour roadside assistance and $300,000 of liability insurance (with a $500 deductible).

To rent a Zipcar, first you must become a member, which entails about a week's wait while a check of your driving record is completed.

After becoming members, users are issued a Zipcard (although reservations take place entirely over the Web or using a mobile phone). The Zipcar site will display the location of available cars in any designated neighborhood or region, and users can reserve by time, price, location or car model. Reservations can be made well in advance or for immediate use, and by the hour or for several days.

zipcar new york city manhattan car share carshareCars are typically located in publicly accessible parking lots; this is one truly convenient piece of the puzzle. In my own home town (a university town), there are two cars within about a block of places we visit almost daily. Of course, we drive to those places, but we are taking two big trips this fall -- and there are multiple cars located within a block of two hotels in which we intend to stay while traveling.

Once a reservation is made, instead of going to a rental counter, the user goes directly to the parked car (using Zipcar's mobile maps on his or her phone if needed) and waves the Zipcard across the windshield, which opens and activates the car. The keys will be inside the car; the same process takes place in reverse at the end of the reservation; the user leaves the keys inside, and locks and deactivates the car with the Zipcard.

Additional mobile features include GPS location of cars using a smartphone and subsequent direct booking from those same location maps; text alerts as the end of a reservation approaches; and information about whether the car is available for an extension (which may not always be the case if another user has made a subsequent reservation of the car).

Zipcar picks up the tab for gas; users are asked to use a fuel card inside the car to keep the car at least a quarter-tank full.

Users also have some flexibility in how they use the service; there are several driving plans, including household/family plans. Zipcar is also building an iPhone app that will allow the whole process to take place using your phone.

Car Sharing
Car sharing was originally established primarily as a progressive-minded solution to urban congestion, pollution and the hassles of owning a car in the city. There are numerous players in the car sharing business, many of them nonprofit operations focused on easing urban congestion, reducing auto emissions and offering transportation services to underserved communities. Many operate primarily on a local basis; Wikipedia has a pretty solid list of car sharing operators worldwide.

Inevitably, many car sharing companies have become increasingly profit-minded; for example, Zipcar's addition of BMW's to its fleet is indicative of a decidedly more corporate effort. After a merger with Flexcar, Zipcar became the biggest player in the space (and not coincidentally has been criticized for changing or even overturning the nature of the industry).

But that may be changing fast, as Hertz recently launched Connect by Hertz, which similarly focuses on urban and university areas. Hertz's network of cars is much more limited, but the company has said it will commit resources to growing that number quickly.

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