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Car-sharing comes to D.C.

(Published December 3, 2001)


Staff Writer

A Zipcar waits to be rented in the Reed-Cooke neighborhood.

Now you don’t need to know your neighbors to drive their car, provided that you beat them to it. Sound crazy? Two companies new to the District are making it happen.

Two companies called Zipcar and Flexcar are bringing car-sharing to D.C. residents and businesses, a practice that industry sources say is extremely popular in Europe and catching on in the United States.

For individuals, car-sharing is designed to "fill the void" between rental car service and taxi service, said Zipcar representative Bill Edwards. At a recent neighborhood meeting for Adams Morgan residents, Edwards cited an elderly Boston woman who has reserved the Zipcar parked in her neighborhood for a couple of hours each week to drive to church and back.

But residents don’t need to use the car routinely, although they do need to book the car in advance. With the swipe of an individual Zipcar-issued "proximity card," D.C. residents can unlock and drive the Volkswagon Beetle stationed in front of Madams Organ pub on 18th Street NW or the Golf parked at Union Station. Zipcar also provides Jettas, Passat station wagons and Honda Civics, with Focus Wagons on their way.

Zipcar parks its cars mainly in residential areas for easy access by D.C. residents, who are already taking the company’s 12 cars in the District for a spin. Edwards said he expects the number of cars available to increase rapidly, based on Zipcar’s plan to add one or two cars per week to meet increased demand.

Flexcar representatives say they are planning to launch their own car-sharing services Dec. 4, which will bring the two companies head-to-head in the same metro area for the first time.

Flexcar’s approach differs from Zipcar’s fiercely independent stance, which has led them to pair up with real estate developer Charles E. Smith, as well as Colonial and Central Parking, in the District. Edwards said "the ink is drying" on further deals with private companies.

Flexcar, on the other hand, prefers to team up with public entities, such as they have done already in Seattle and Portland. In the District, Flexcar signed a contract with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as its partner. Flexcars, typically a four-seat Honda Civic, will be parked at the "kiss and ride" parking lots of Metro stations in and around the District.

"We’re attempting to provide another mobility option linked to the rail and bus service, as well as being located in neighborhoods," said Jill Frick, Flexcar’s general manager in this area.

Car-sharing is for city-dwellers wanting "timesharing of a vehicle without the hassles of car ownership," Frick said. Aside from those without a car of their own, she also noted that couples with one car sometimes opt to use a Flexcar on weekends as they visit different friends.

Zipcar and Flexcar representatives say they are unsure how much business they will be taking from each other. Yet representatives of both companies remain optimistic about signing up D.C. drivers for their services, emphasizing the characteristics that set their company apart.

Edwards called Zipcar "the Microsoft of car-sharing," emphasizing that after an account is established, there is no paperwork or jotting down odometer readings. Advanced wireless technology on-board keeps track of the time the car is in use and the mileage.

Each Zipcar customer is given a unique "proximity card," which is "the only card that works on that system" when you have reserved the car, according to Edwards, because it is tied to the Internet and phone reservation system. With other car-sharing technologies, Edwards continued, "the car might not be there when you make the reservation."

Flexcar may be a bit slower on the technology front, but plans are in the making to introduce an online reservation system, Frick said. In the meantime, customers can use their touch-tone phone to reserve cars, she said. The company also hopes to eventually tie in Metro’s "Smartcards" so that riders can easily change between bus, train and car with the same card.

Transponders, currently used by Zipcar to track mileage, are also in the works for Flexcar and will be available when the company implements more advanced technology, Frick said. For now, drivers get "a key and special lock-box PIN code tied to the reservation system," where everyone has a different personal identification number.

Frick emphasized the "ease of getting into [Flexcar’s] program" and the "ability to offer service to all income levels." Applicants will pay $25 to have Flexcar check their driving record. Aside from that, she said there are no annual fees or a security deposit.

Frick said Flexcar has various plans for various users, which are set up like cell phone plans. For example, a $35 per month plan gives a rider five hours a month of free driving, not to exceed 50 miles. After 50 miles, the driver pays by the mile, and after five hours by time. The monthly plans also can be changed, Frick said, so that "if you know you’re going on vacation in December, you can switch to a lower plan" with no cost.

Edwards said company studies comparing Zipcar’s pricing plan with Flexcar’s came to the conclusion that "the rates are comparable." Yet, they are structured differently. At $30, Zipcar’s application fee is comparable to Flexcar’s. Zipcar requires a deposit of $300, which Edwards said gives drivers "a sense of ownership."

Members then pay either $75 a year or $30 a month. Rates for using the car are 40 cents per mile and around $7 per hour, depending on which car you’re using and what Zipcar pays for the parking space. If a driver doesn’t use over $75 a year or $30 a month, Flexcar will not bill anything more.

The standard rate kicks in, however, when a driver goes over that amount. The company puts what they call a "maximum daily rate" on using their cars: depending on time of year and type of car, this rate is $50 to $85. After 125 miles, however, the driver pays 18 cents per additional mile, even if they have hit the maximum daily rate.

Both companies’ pricing plans also cater to new users who may want to try car-sharing without committing to special long-term plans, or monthly or annual rates. Drivers can take a Flexcar for a test drive for $3.50 an hour and 90 cents a minute, Frick said. Zipcar also has daily rates, which are "somewhat higher than the monthly or annual rates," Edwards said.

Both companies’ pricing plans include gas, insurance, car maintenance and cleaning, as well as a guaranteed parking space. With both, there is no need to rush the car back to avoid paying for leaving the car parked somewhere overnight. Zipcar allows for free hours between midnight and 6 a.m.; for Flexcar, it is 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The insurance policies offered by the companies are similar and ask that the customer cover the first $500 of an accident that is their fault. Zipcar’s Web site states that "with each incident, even a flat tire, you must pick up the first $500 in costs." Flexcar, on the other hand, would "certainly not charge" passengers for a flat tire, according to company representative David Leonhardt. Instead, he said the company would send 24-hour roadside assistance.

Whereas Zipcar’s insurance policy has a strict policy on its members being 21 or over, Flexcar is more lenient. "We went to bat with our insurance policy [and] expanded… our profile," Leonhardt said. The profile now includes full-time college students in their junior or senior year, who can take the car unless it is "after 5 p.m. Friday or Saturday night." For both companies, however, it is necessary to have a good driving record.

Zipcar and Flexcar are also pursuing corporate clients. In Boston, where Zipcar was launched 18 months ago, the company has 1,500 members and 66 cars, Edwards said.

Both companies are considering bringing hybrid cars to their fleets in the future. Flexcar is also looking to introduce trucks and other specialty vehicles to the fleet, becoming more like Zipcar.

Proponents of car-sharing say that it is not only cheaper than owning a car, but it improves the environment. Industry sources say that car-sharing decreases traffic on the road, relieves parking congestion and reduces pollution by using "quality" cars.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator