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Environmentally friendly

Hybrid gas/electric sedans join the car-sharing fleet

(Published February 10, 2003)


Staff Writer

Representatives of the national car-sharing service Flexcar said they want to help the environment and D.C. neighborhoods by bringing hybrid gas/electric cars to the District. But out of the company’s 17 cars parked near D.C. Metro stations, only one or two are hybrid vehicles.

"Because we started with gas cars, we’re always going to have both gas and hybrids," said Jill Frick, Flexcar’s general manager for the D.C. area. "We hope to one day have at least 50/50 because of our commitment to the environment."

But the big selling point of companies like Flexcar is not concern for the environment. It is the offer of yet another alternative to car ownership, cabs and public transportation. Car sharers are billed by the hour or mile or month. They can reserve cars by phone or online in 30 seconds, in some cases. Unlike rental car services, car-sharing companies do not require drivers to sign paperwork each time the vehicles are used. Frick said Flexcar requires no security deposit or annual fees.

Flexcar, which began in Seattle in 1999, started offering its cars in the District a little over a year ago when it won a contract with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and brought 22 Honda Civic four-door sedans to 12 Metro stations. It has since expanded to 42 cars at 24 Metro stations and hopes to add 50 more cars this year.

Frick estimates that Flexcar members in the metropolitan area use the cars two to six hours per month, but the number of members who use each car varies.

"It can be as many as 20 to 40 people per car," she said.

In one year Flexcar came up with many ideas to use its partnership with Metro to its advantage. One example is a promotional offer found on the company’s web site. The ad says members of the Greater Washington Board of Trade who sign up for a Flexcar and Metrochek can get up to 300 hours of car-sharing service at a value of $1,500, depending on how many employees sign up. Neil Peterson, president and founder of Flexcar, said in a news conference Jan. 31 that local drivers would soon be able to borrow a Flexcar with the "Smartcards" offered by Metro in addition to the standard "Flexcard" the company offers.

Frick said there are three reasons why Metro chose Flexcar over other services for partnership: Flexcar had experience working with public and private partnerships, the company was environmentally friendly and Peterson had past experience with public transportation as a general manager of Seattle and Oakland, Calif., transit systems.

"We also service to economically diverse neighborhoods," Frick said.

But Gabe Klein, regional vice president of Zipcar – Flexcar’s only car-sharing competitor in the District, said he is somewhat unsettled by the Flexcar and Metro relationship.

"From what my understanding of it is, that it is mainly a marketing partnership," Klein said, "whether or not places like WMATA should be forming partnerships like that…is open to questioning."

Klein said the partnership between the two has had no apparent effect on Zipcar’s business in the metropolitan area and that there is no difference between the two car-sharing services when it comes to Metro access.

"We have cars at many Metro stations as well…. We believe we complement the current transportation services. To be honest, there needs to be cars in other places besides Metro stations. People need cars at places that are not accessed by public transportation," Klein said, alluding to some of the Zipcar locations that can’t be reached by Metro.

The Cambridge, Mass., based Zipcar started like Flexcar in 2001 in the D.C. area. In one year, it expanded from 12 to 30 cars at D.C. locations. Klein said his company also offers hybrid cars. They were added to Zipcar’s fleet in D.C. in 2002.

Klein said he has no statistics on how often Zipcars are used in the District, but the "self-service cars by the hour," as Klein prefers to call them, are particularly popular in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, where they are used continuously.

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham says residents of his ward also heavily use the shared cars. Ward 1 has one of the lowest per capita car ownership rates in the city, Graham said during the Flexcar/Metro news conference on Jan 31. For Graham, the lack of car ownership is an example of the changing nature of transportation in the District.

"D.C. has become more Manhattanized – the way of life in Manhattan is that you don’t need a car," said Graham, who also serves as chairman of WMATA’s Joint Development Committee. He said that though some people may question why a public transportation service like Metro would form a partnership with a company like Flexcar, he believes the partnership was a fortunate collaboration.

"Twenty percent of those [in D.C.] who sign up for Flexcar live in Ward 1. Seventy-five percent of Flexcard owners use buses once a week and almost 90 percent use Metro once a week," Graham said. "It was a natural partnership."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator