GIVE UP YOUR CAR
IF YOU COULD SHARE ONE INSTEAD?
By: MARGOT ROOSEVELT Seattle
HOW A REAL HOT CONCEPT COULD EASE GRIDLOCK.
GRACE KIM REFUSES TO OWN A CAR.
But at least once a month, the Seattle architect drives 30 miles to the suburbs to visit her mother. If she’s in the mood, she’ll cruise out to the airport to pick up friends. Occasionally, she wants a car to lug home groceries in bulk or try a new restaurant across town. And when clients need to visit a building site, Kim is at the wheel.
ALL THAT’S POSSIBLE, BECAUSE Kim and her husband, architect Michael Mariano, are members of Flexcar, one of more than a dozen car-sharing companies revving up across the U.S. ( TIME Magazine, February 21, 2005) As such, the pair have only to jump on the Internet or call a local number to reserve one of several vehicles parked in their neighborhood. They can choose between a Honda, a Lexus, a mini-van for carting equipment or, for a jaunty weekend outing, a silver Mazda Miata. They can enter the car any time of night or day with a security-coded electronic card, get charged by the hour thanks to an in-car transmitter, and receive the bill at the end of the month. “We’re ecstatic:’ says Kim.
You don’t have to own a well to get water or a generator to get electricity. Must you own a car (or two or three) to drive? “You can join a mobility plan, like you join a cell-phone plan,” says Dan Sturges, a transportation researcher for West-Start, a nonprofit based in Pasadena, Calif. “It is self-service, on-demand, pay as you go. And you get different vehicles for different needs.”
It’s a new way of thinking for the U.S.’s grid-locked cities— hassle-free, hourly rental, a concept that has been popular in Europe for at least two decades. For every vehicle in a car-sharing fleet, transportation planners say about 10 cars are taken off the roads . Moreover, when drivers pay by the hour, they tend to drive less. They walk more, take the occasional bus or clump their errands to-gether in one trip. While ear sharing is now available in nine big cities and a score of smaller towns, in many places the operations are still seedling, with just a few cars . Expansion is under way, however, and car-sharing companies plan to bring the service to more than two dozen major metropolitan areas—a trend that could eventually remove tens of thousands of cars from the highways, reducing pollution, energy use and congestion.
Cities love the idea and are actively encouraging it. In Seattle, the municipal gover -nment runs a One Car Challenge:’ doling out $50 a month in free Flexcar use
for a year to people who can prove they sold their family’s second car in favor of car sharing. In Portland, Ore., people whose automobiles fail emissions tests get $500 worth of free Flexcar use if they junk their cars. Outside Washington, the Virginia suburbs of Alexandria and Arlington pay membership fees for any residents who want to join a car-sharing plan. In Greenbelt, Md., the city leases a vehicle from Zip-car, a Massachusetts-based car-sharing firm, stationing it at a senior-citizens complex and renting it to elderly residents for only $1 an hour. And in Philadelphia, officials are auctioning off 329 vehicles from the municipal fleet and using PhillyCarShare, a local nonprofit, as an alternative. Projected savings: $1 million a year.
HOW REVOLUTIONARY WILL THIS BE? If car sharing is to have a national impact on congestion, it must surmount a basic paradox: everyone hates traffic and smog, but few people are willing to give up their cars. In the U.S., as the saying goes, you are what you drive. And a half-century of highway subsidies has only fueled the sense of entitlement. According to a poll on traffic by TIME, ABC News and the Washington Post, only 10% of those surveyed who have access to mass transit actually use it regularly. “There’s a stigma to not owning a car says Kim, the Seattle architect. “People say, ‘Hey, you’re wearing a nice jacket— can’t you afford a car?”’ Now car-sharing firms are out to prove that their commu-nal approach offers its own attractions: freedom—and even convenience. As a Zipcar ad put it, “350 hours/year having sex. 420 looking for parking. What’s wrong with this picture?” In Boston, New York and Washington, almost all of Zipcar’s 32,000 customers are within a seven-minute walk of a company car. “Our members are savvy;’ says CEO Scott Griffith . “They don’t need to own a car to enjoy mobility”
Convenience aside, car-sharing firms are betting that their growth will come from people looking to save money. Consumers, they hope, will figure out that they could save enough for an annual vacation in Hawaii if they just switched from owning to sharing. Or merely gave up that second or third ear. The American Automobile Association estimates that it costs an average $703 a month to own a modest vehicle —what with payments, depreciation, insurance, maintenance and gasoline. Yet government surveys show that most cars are driven only about an hour a day Those same 30 hours a month would cost less than $300 in a car-share program. Zipcar and Seattle-based Flexcar, the industry leaders, charge an annual member-ship fee of $25 to $50 and an hourly rate of $7.50 to $10 depending on the user’s monthly driving plan (drive more, pay less) . And that hourly charge includes in-surance, parking, maintenance and fuel (a company credit card in the glove com-partment is available for when you fill the tank). Traditional rental cars, by con-trast, typically require more paperwork and are usually available only by the day, at fees that range from $25 to $150 but don’t include insurance or gas. “It is a dollar- and-cents equation,” says Flexcar CEO Lance Ayrault. “Do the math and ask your-self. ‘Why do I own that darn thing?”’
For Fran Trowbridge, 72, a retiree, the answer was easy. Two Flexcars are stationed in the garage of a Seattle high-rise next to hers. A month after joining Flexcar, she sold her Ford Taurus. Insurance had cost her more than she pays for 10 hours of monthly car-share fees, which is all she needs to shop and visit friends. “And I sure don’t miss the maintenance and lubing part:’ she says. Similarly, for
the Steelquists—a two-job, two-kid, two-car family—price was a motive. “We wanted to dial back on expenses and also reduce our impact on the environment:’ says Joan Steelquist, who works for a Seattle non-profit group. After enrolling in the city’s One Car Challenge last summer, the Steelquists downsized to a single 1989 Chevy Geo. Joan uses Flexcars to get to her part-time teaching job once a week . And she can drive her son Reuben, 11, to Boy Scout meetings on Thursday nights—and grocery-shop while she’s at it—while her husband is off some-where else with the Geo. Moreover, she adds, “sharing cars with others gives me the good feeling of being part of a community”
Worldwide, 280,000 people belong to car-share programs, nearly three-quarters of them in Europe, according to Susan Shaheen, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley . The idea spread to the U.S. back in 1998, with the opening of a small company in Portland, Ore. Since then, the movement has grown to 14 firms with 1 62,000 members in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The firms range from ambitious outfits like Zipcar and Flexcar, which are each adding as many as 1,000 members a month, to modest start-ups like the Dancing Rabbit Vehicle Co-operative in Rutledge, Mo., and Roaring Fork Vehicles in Aspen, Colo. Zipcar and Flexcar, zealous rivals, both say they will break even for the first time next month, even while they are preparing to expand into new markets from Chicago to Denver and Minneapolis . Across the U.S., car-sharing membership and revenues are expected to grow tenfold over the next five years . Says Shaheen: “A lot of innovative people are passionate about car sharing—because it makes sense.
Among the enthusiasts are transit officials desperately seeking to boost ridership on buses and trains. Car sharing is not designed for traveling from home to work and back—the cost would be too high for a 10-hour day. But, stationed near office buildings and along rail lines, shared cars offer “mobility insurance” for workers who avoid mass transit because they just might need a car for a midday errand. The message: If you must own a car, leave it in your garage at home. Washington Met-ro officials have placed 107 Flexcars and Zipcars at 66 city and suburban stations. And downtown Seattle has 35 Flexcars so that members can scoot across town for lunch or a parent-teacher meeting. “Car sharing is not a silver bullet,” says Ref Lindmark, a transportation planner for King County, Wash. “But it gives people another reason to ride the bus.” And, he adds, it is a lot cheaper than building million-dollar parking lots and billion-dollar highways.
Increasingly, businesses are seeing car sharing as a way to cut costs on their fleets: Corporate accounts now make up at least 40% of Flexcar and Zipcar revenues. Some companies even offer access as a perk to employees by allowing use of the cars for personal errands much as they might subsidize a gym membership. In Am-ican’s Finest City, (downtown San Diego) 14 corporations share a fleet of 10 Flex-cars thus reducing their need to buy company cars. In Seattle, URS Corp., an engineer ing firm, sold five of its nine fleet cars afer signing up with Flexcar, saving
$12,000 a year in parking fees alone And in Manhattan, Elan Ackerman, who runs
a small events-marketing firm, uses Zipcars to pick up disc jockeys at the airport (“They like to be pampered ) and deliver cases of Tiger Beer, his main client. His car-sharing bill amounts to $150 a month for both personal and business errands. “It’s become essential.” he says. “Parking alone in Manhattan would cost me $400 a month.”
So far, sharing cars works best in dense city neighborhoods, where people can easily walk to them. Last year Flexcar had to scale back temporarily in Los Angel-es, after scattering its 30 vehicles too widely among the city’s vast low-rise neighborhoods. Eventually, if car sharing makes inroads in the suburbs, it would probably be in urbanized pockets, where office complexes and subdivisions would see it as an extra amenity. Wellesley College, in the Boston suburbs, makes Zip-cars available to all its students, and a score of other universities have also partnered with car-sharing groups. In the end, however, convenience is funda-ental. Even Berkeley-based Shaheen, the acknowledged guru of car sharing, isn’t a member of the Bay Area’s City CarShare because, so far, none of the company’s 85 vehicles are close to her home. “They’d have to put one at the bottom of my hill:’ she says.
And then there is another small matter: Will animal lovers give up their SUVs when they discover that car share companies require Fido to be kept in a pet carrier? “Leave the car cleaner than you found it—no hair, no pee, no odors, no quills or feathers or yolks:’ warn Zipcar s rules. In Seattle, the Steelquists are grappling with the issue, as their Australian shepherd, Loki, takes a dim view of confinement. “Maybe someday they’ll have dog-friendly cars:’ says Joan, wistfully.
In the Driver’s seat.
According to a new poll by TIME, ABC News
and the Washington Post:
68% of those in the survey live in households with 2 or more cars
47% say traffic conditions are fair or poor in the area where they live.
25% say they would be interested in car-sharing services.
93% say that traveling by car is more convenient than public transportation.
75% say they travel almost all the time by car.
83% say they believe carpooling would reduce traffic congestion.
84% say they commute to work all alone.
80% of those driving alone are not interested in carpooling.
25% say car-sharing, with rented cars billed by the hour, interests them.
Online Dating for Carpoolers.
W hile car sharing is a concept that’s catching on real fast- - old-fashioned carpooling has always faced an uphill grind.
In a recent survey about traffic problems by TIME, ABC News and the Wash-iungton Post, 84% of those who drive to work daily say they still go it alone. More than half of those loned riders insist that carpooling is just too inconvenient, and 18% say they simply don’t know anyone going their way to share a ride with.
NOW, TECHNOLOGY IS OFFERING A SOLUTION.
NuRide, an online-carpooling service, promises to make carpooling easier and much, much more fun. The company, which launched their site last year, 2004, from an office in Herndon, Va., offers commuters in the Washington area not just a web-based directory of potential carpoolers but also a way to arrange a trip online. Here’s how it works:
Ride seekers enter the locations where their trip will begin and end.
Also, the time they would like to leave, (Will they drive or ride)
The site search engine then looks for matches.
Lists of the screen names of compatible traveling companions appear.
(The information contains the car year & model - departure times also)
People finding interesting matches can click to register their interest
The details can then be arranged between the parties
While anyone can log on to set up a trip. HOWEVER, NuRide users aren’t riding with total strangers. Participants are required to provide the name of their employer and a work e-mail addres, both of which NuRide verifies before using their name on their site. Users can also specify whether they will ride with women, men, non-smokers, etc. And in NuRide’s nod to eBay, they can rank one another on a scale of from 1 to 5 on criteria ranging from showing up on time to being a safe driver. People who proceed to drive enough users mad can be off-ramped to “do not ride” status and so listed.
To woo participants, NuRide offers a frequent rider bobus: anyone who shares a ride gets a $1.00 gift certificate from such companies as Brookstone and/or XM Satellite Radio. So far, 2,300 have signed up. NuRide CEO Rick Steele estimates that more than 50,000 rides have been arranged to date on the site, resulting in 1.4 million fewer miles haven ben driven an 650 fewer tons of automobile emissions. “I do it to save on gasoline and reduce my stress load.” Dan Kulpinski, a senior pro-gramming manager at America Online, who has arranged 100 trips, mostly for the 55-minute commute from his suburban home in Maryland to his office in Sterling, Va.
NuRide, which got much of its seed money from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, is currently focusing its service on a few major compan-ies in the D.C. area that currently have enough employees who are most likely to find matches in the area for a commute match. But, Steele and his partners think their idea can help ease traffic congestiion all around the U. S. They recently began operating in several counties outside New York City and want to start in three other metropolitan area by the end of this year, (2005)
They’re also working on a more ambitious phone version of the service that will use global-positioning satellites to match riders with cars already on the road in their area, With NuRide, Americans might soon be able to hitch a ride from anywhere to anywhere, fast, easy and cheap.
By: Perry Bacon Jr.
TIME Magazine, Inc.
February, 21, 2005. (Pgs.50-53)
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