Start Sharing a Car
When Holly Shulman moved to Washington, D.C., a few years back, she knew owning a car would be impossible. Street parking was a joke, and upkeep was expensive. But what about trips to Ikea and lugging home cartons of orange juice? Enter Zipcar, the nation's leading car-sharing service.
Car sharing, essentially short-term car rental, has true believers praising its cost-effectiveness and convenience. Shulman and more than 100,000 others can now proudly truck their cheap Swedish furniture home and help protect the environment, too.
Companies like Zipcar and its competitor Flexcar cater to young urbanites who enjoy the flexibility of paying for a car only when using it. Members pay an annual fee and are then charged by the hour and sometimes per mile for cars parked all over the city and accessed by electronic keys. Included in membership is the cost of fuel and insurance. "We always thought that early adopters would be focused on the environment," says Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith. "Now we've reached the tipping point, and we're working with a much broader group."
As the number of members multiplies, so do the environmental benefits. Depending on whom you ask, each vehicle owned by a car-sharing service takes seven to 20 private cars off the road. One study from UC-Berkeley estimates that 20,000 fewer miles were driven a day in the Bay Area because of City CarShare, a local nonprofit service. These services have also embraced hybrid technology: Flexcar's fleet is 30 percent hybrid and averages 30 miles per gallon. Proponents predict reduced street congestion and cities dedicating less space to parking, if car sharing continues to grow.
Although most of the industry gravitates toward big cities, car sharing is moving into smaller communities, especially college campuses. As for areas that don't yet have car sharing, supporters can start by asking city officials, transit agencies, employers, local schools, and the companies themselves about the service.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.