Monday, December 20, 2010

Car-Sharing: How it works, why it's awesome

I've mentioned the wonders of ZipCar car sharing a few times in this space, but the idea is still one of the most potent conversation-starters I have when talking about cars and transit. A lot of people want to know just what car-sharing is, how it works, and whether or not it's right for them. So here's a brief on how car-sharing works, where you can find it, what it costs and why it's a great complement to your bike and transit ways.

Essentially, car-sharing is a way for many people to share an automobile. Simpler forms include a few roommates or neighbours pooling funds to purchase and share one vehicle, but most of the time we're talking about larger services or cooperatives who make their membership available to the general public, subject to a fee and usually a check of their driving record. In California, there are basically three organizations that provide such services: ZipCar, the 800lb gorilla of car-sharing worldwide; CityCarShare, a cooperative with cars in San Francisco and LAXCarShare, a local company providing cars in Los Angeles. From here on out I'll refer to ZipCar specifically (because that's what we've got here in Riverside), but most large car-share services work similarly. Car-sharing services have fleets of cars parked around cities, often at University campuses or transit stations, that any member can reserve for use by the hour. They generally charge a small annual fee and a flat hourly rate, which includes gasoline and insurance. If you live near a car-share car, it can provide you the convenience of a car parked nearby without the exorbitant cost of owning a car, especially if you don't use your car every day. It's great for transit users who have to make an occasional trip that requires driving, or as a replacement for a seldom-used second car.

To join ZipCar, you fill out an application on their web site (see the referral link in the sidebar) and give them your driver's license and credit card information. After a week or so, you'll get a ZipCard in the mail. This card has an RFID chip in it, similar to LA's TAP card or the proximity access cards at many workplaces. Once you have this card, you link it to your account on their web site and you're ready to start making reservations. You can make reservations over the phone, through the web site (which is smartphone-accessible) or via their iPhone app, in half-hour increments. Once you've reserved your car, you go find the car at the start of your reservation, tap your ZipCard to the reader in the windshield, and the car will unlock. The keys are generally on a cord next to the steering column. During the trip, you lock and unlock the car with your ZipCard on the windshield-mounted reader. When you're done you simply return the car to where you got it, lock it and walk away. If it needs gas, there's a gas card in the car which you can use at most gas stations at no cost to you- and if you can't find a gas station that'll take it, ZipCar will reimburse you.

One great thing about ZipCar is that they're worldwide. They have cars in dozens of cities and college towns across the country, as well as fleets in Canadian cities and in the UK. If you're over 21, you can reserve and use any ZipCar anywhere in the world. (18-year-olds can join, but only on college campuses and are limited to the cars available on that campus.) On vacation this spring I was able to quickly pick up a ZipCar in San Francisco for a time-sensitive situation that Muni couldn't handle.

So, why am I promoting expanded access to the world of automobility? Because car-sharing is a fantastic addition to a car-free (or car-lite) household. ZipCar finds that 40% of members reduce the number of cars in their household because of access to car-sharing. It can provide that safety net for somebody to be able to get by without owning a car, and therefore allow them to take transit, walk or cycle for the majority of their trips- knowing that, if they ever need to drive, there's a car around the corner. Furthermore, car-sharing reduces carbon emissions and congestion. The per-hour pricing model provides incentives for members to drive less, chain trips together, and only use a car when they *really* need it. And the ability of people to share cars reduces the number of cars on the road- by approximately 25 per ZipCar, according to the company.

So, where is car-sharing available in SoCal? Right now, there are three ZipCars on the UC Riverside campus- the only ones in the Inland Empire. For my OC readers, cars are available at Chapman University and UC Irvine. In LA County, you can find them at CSU Long Beach, the Claremont Colleges, CalTech in Pasadena, at USC, at UCLA, and (according to the ZipCar Facebook page) throughout Hollywood. San Diegans can find ZipCars at UCSD, San Diego State, San Diego University and Point Loma Nazarene University. Local upstart LAXCarShare also has cars throughout Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Note that, although SoCal cars tend to live near universities, you don't have to be affiliated with the university to use them.

At this point, you're probably wondering what it costs. The prices change based on what market you live in, and many larger ZipCar cities have plans with higher annual fees that allow a certain amount of free hours a month. However, here in Riverside, the cost structure is rather simple. If you're UCR-affiliated, there's no application fee and a $35/year/driver annual fee. If you're not, then there is a $25 one-time application fee, and your annual fee is $50/year/driver. Either way, the cost is minimal. As for actually renting a car, the rate is set on a per-car basis throughout the system, but all three cars in Riverside have the same rates. Weekdays cost $8/hr or $66/day, and weekends $9/hr or $72/day.

So that's car-sharing: an alternative to vehicle ownership that allows mostly-alt-transport people to borrow a car on a whim when they need to. If you live near (read: within walking/biking distance) one of the locations listed above, I encourage you to give it a try- and there's no better way to do so than by clicking on my referral link in this blog's right sidebar. For more information, browse ZipCar's helpful web site.

1 comment:

Chewie said...

These services do seem helpful, although I've never used them. It seems like the trick is getting car sharing established in more neighborhoods. I guess that just takes patient support and promotion by the people who use it now.

When I lived in LA I would use taxis sometimes. It actually works pretty well if you store a few numbers in your phone and you aren't going very far, or if you live in one of the few neighborhoods that have taxi stands.