Car-sharing: wheels at will, and lower bill

Innovation: Company picks up a concept popular in Europe and uses it in suburban Washington.

May 28, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

There are few similarities in the lives of Alan Turnbull and Hazel Parent. He's a young professional, a city councilman in Greenbelt and the father of two small children. She's a 62-year-old widow whose days are spent making pottery at her public housing apartment and tending to her aging terrier, Charlee.

About the only thing they have in common is the "Zipcar" they share, a sparkling white 2002 Volkswagen Jetta parked a short walk from both of their homes.

In greater Washington, as in Boston, Seattle, New York - and, perhaps, Baltimore soon - car-sharing programs are catching on, creating a potentially significant transportation link.

For a cross section of motorists - from residents of apartment complexes to budget-conscious college students, from rail passengers who need a vehicle at the end of the line to employers who want an economical fleet of company cars - membership means a simple, paperless way of paying for a car only when one is needed.

With a reservation and the swipe of a membership card, the car door unlocks and members are mobile. The fee - in Washington, $6 to $9 an hour - includes gas and insurance.

Turnbull and his wife found the system so convenient they got rid of their second car. "I figure we're saving $3,000 a year easily between operation, fuel, oil, depreciation and insurance," Turnbull said. "It's a real cheap way to have backup transportation."

Parent - who had feared driving her 20-year-old Ford more than a few miles from home and couldn't afford to replace it - said she is suddenly liberated.

"I've kind of got a life again," said Parent, who has begun dreaming of day trips to the Inner Harbor.

Typically, members pay a sign-up fee of $25 to $30. Cars are kept at high-density spots such as apartment complexes, university campuses and transit stops. A vehicle can be reserved online on a few minutes' notice, and members can choose any car in their network nationwide. When done, they return the car to its designated parking spot.

Presidents of the nation's two largest car-sharing companies - Boston-based Zipcar and Seattle-based Flexcar - say they started their businesses after observing the success of similar companies in Europe, where car-sharing has long been in place.

"It was such a cool thing, I asked myself, `Why aren't we doing this?'" said Neil Petersen, head of 3-year-old Flexcar and a former transit executive in Seattle and Los Angeles. "It stuck in the back of my mind."

`The perfect solution'

On the other side of the country, Robin Chase was confronting transportation headaches in Boston.

"We are a family of five living in an urban area, and my husband took the car to commute to work every single day, leaving me carless with three kids," she recalled. The expense and hassle of parking, maintenance and insurance made her reluctant to buy a second car.

Then she learned about European car-sharing. "It spoke to me - this was the perfect solution," said Chase, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

Two years ago, she started Zipcar with three vehicles. The company has expanded to Washington, New York and Denver, with 2,500 members and a growing fleet that will number 250 cars by the end of the year.

Zipcar officials have begun exploring other cities, including Baltimore, and have contacted the University of Maryland and city officials about collaborating to provide the parking spaces. They have no timetable for when the service might be offered in this area.

Perhaps contributing to the interest in car-sharing are two important facts about American motorists: The average American uses a car a total of one hour a day - and spends 25 percent of his or her income on it, car-sharing groups say.

Formal car-sharing can provide an economical option. And when paired with mass transit, it can be environmentally helpful by reducing the number of cars on the road.

"I think this will be a ubiquitous service in cities within five years," Chase said. In the 1-square-mile city of Cambridge, Mass., Zipcar operates 25 cars. "But this city could take hundreds of cars. Eventually I think there'll be one on every block."

Penny Cherubino decided to sign up last summer. A marketing research consultant who lives in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, she worried whether a car would be available when she needed one, particularly for emergency visits to her ailing mother-in-law.

Her concerns have proved to be unfounded. Four cars are within a four-block area of her home.

"I've always been able to find a car - even on Labor Day weekend," she said. "There are probably seven different cars that I use regularly" - among them, a Toyota Prius hybrid that runs on gasoline and electricity, and a Volkswagen Beetle.

"My husband really loves cars, and one of the benefits is he gets to drive these different cars," she said.

The couple have sold their Saab, their only car, which was costing them $10,000 a year in parking, maintenance and other expenses.

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