The Benefits of City Car Sharing

These budding businesses can save you money.
By Alison Lakin
If you happen to live in a city, you might have noticed how expensive parking is. Or how you keep spending money on insurance and gas for a car you barely use. Why, you could probably get away without having a car at all.

This makes more sense than you might think. According to the 2005 census, 81 percent of Americans live in urban areas (that’s 243 million people!), and many of us have some form of public transportation available. But as useful as buses and trains are, they can’t cover our every need. Many of us would be hard-pressed to go without a car completely. If we don’t need one to get to work, there’s still the Costco trip to take into account or an across-town flag-football game to attend or a late night excursion to your best friend’s birthday party. In short, we need access to a vehicle.

That’s the thinking behind car sharing. The basic principle is simple: a person signs up for the program, paying a small initiation fee and agreeing to an hourly rate, then reserves a car for use – choosing by location and even type of car, or, hell, even by the car’s nickname. Paying by the hour no longer has to be relegated to seedy motel reception desks, and low rates mean taking a car for a couple hours while you brave the hoards at Ikea will cost you less than a Billy bookcase.

Car sharing started in Switzerland – oh, those innovative Europeans – where crowded cities, efficient public transportation and lack of parking relegated cars to burdensome money-wasters. Now, the concept has become established in cities throughout the U.S. as well. While Zipcar has expanded nationally, the majority of car sharing companies are based in single cities or regions. The San Francisco Bay Area has City CarShare, for example, or there’s PhillyCarShare in, you guessed it, Philadelphia.

What’s surprising is how few people actually use these services despite their obvious benefits. At the height of the gas crunch summer 2008, Zipcar’s membership numbers had reached around 225,000. That’s just about 1 percent of Americans based in cities. Consider that car sharing means not having to pay for gas or insurance – saving you hundreds to thousands of dollars a year. And maintenance costs are usually a big headache to those owners with cars out of warranty.

Monetary savings aren’t the only advantages to car sharing, having access to cars that you may not have been able to afford in the first place means your short trip will be enhanced by an array of standard features. Trucks and SUVs can be found in the fleets too, so your friend with the F-150 won’t get a call every time you need to move.

Oh yeah, there’s also the environment to think about. Shared cars equal fewer cars on the road equals less pollution, less congestion and less resources wasted. They can also solve urban parking problems. While those may not be the primary motivators behind using the service, I hope it still gives you pause for thought.

Money issues are the topic du jour, for good reason. Not to be a wet blanket (the news takes care of that) but we’re seeing unemployment levels at a new high and many are losing their homes. Car sharing just one way to keep those dollar bills safely tucked away in your wallet.

The hardest part of trying something new is that first step. And it can be scary to imagine life without a car. Overly imaginative ‘what ifs’ run wild through your mind. With many easy-to-access locations and a reservation function to ensure the car is there when you need it, car sharing actually reduces stress and fiscal responsibility. If a situation ever does crop up, like an emergency trip to the hospital, there are cab companies or a nifty 911 operator ready and willing to take your call.

Many companies often offer promotions (read: free trials) to encourage new users to take that first step. Freebies can sway even the most resolute person. And to encourage attachment to the concept, Zipcar even names their vehicles. Considering the do-it-all approach to car sharing, those of you in Vancouver should be on the look out for a Mazda 3 with the fitting name of ‘McGuyver’.

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