Car Sharing 101

By Phoebe Ayers, MLIS Day

Perhaps you will be moving to a new city this year - hopefully, if you are a member of the graduating class, for a fabulous new job. Or, possibly you will be staying in Seattle and want to simplify your life. Either way, you should consider car sharing, an idea that is rapidly spreading to U.S. cities across the country.

In Seattle, the most prominent car sharing program is Flexcar, which has over 100 vehicles in the metro region. The idea is simple. You join up online, and if you are over 21 and have five years driving experience and a relatively clean driving record, you are accepted as a member. You pay a one-time application fee ($35), annual fee (currently $40) and an hourly rate for use of a car (currently $9, or $7.20 with a reduced annual fee if you're a U-Pass holder). If you need a vehicle - to go to the grocery store, Ikea, the suburbs, or anyplace else - you reserve one online through Flexcar's website, pick it up at the appointed time by swiping your magnetic membership card against the reader in the back windshield (which unlocks the car), enter your PIN number on a keypad located in the vehicle, take the keys out of the glovebox and go. Flexcar pays for gas, insurance and maintenance, while you do your part by keeping the car clean and returning it on time.

While $9 an hour initially seems like a lot, consider that the rate includes unlimited miles, and then think about how often you really need a car if you do most of your commuting by bus. Considering that in a city like Seattle parking alone can easily be $30 or more a month, and including the various costs associated with buying and maintaining a vehicle (not to mention the rising cost of gas!), you have to drive fairly frequently to justify having a car at all. But, we all occasionally need a vehicle. Flexcar meets this need by providing cars at a fixed rate - and you know the car will be new, won't break down (or if it does you'll be rescued) and you don't have to worry about gas prices. Plus, many of the cars are quite nice - Flexcar recently invested in a fleet of new Hybrid Honda Civics, for instance, and there's a Miata downtown available to rent. There are also pickups and other specialty vehicles available, as well as special daily rates if you want to take a weekend trip somewhere. Flexcar also provides vehicles for businesses, who view the program as an alternative to maintaining a motorpool.

Car sharing programs originated in Europe, where they are seen as a common-sense way to provide environmentally-friendly transportation for people living in dense urban areas. The concept has spread to American cities via companies like Flexcar (which has vehicles in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington DC) and ZipCar, which operates on the same principles as Flexcar and has vehicles in Washington DC, Boston, New York, and a few in Chapel Hill. In Chicago there is a program administered by I-Go in partnership with Flexcar. The San Francisco Bay area is served by a company called City CarShare. Besides these larger companies, there are a host of neighborhood community car sharing programs, some of which can be found at the (outdated) list at . Many of these programs began with just a few households sharing a vehicle, and grow into a neighborhood or city-wide program. Car sharing is also widespread in Europe, The UK (where they are known as car clubs) , and Canada.

Car sharing is a true example of the "think globally, act locally" philosophy. It is environmentally friendly, reduces the need for parking spaces in urban cores, and encourages people living in close proximity to share a common community transportation resource. It also makes a lot of economic sense for people who walk, bicycle, or take public transportation most places. Finally, as a friend of mine said, it is surprisingly satisfying to take a trip somewhere, come back, park the car, and walk away - without ever having to worry about zone parking, the security of the vehicle, a lease payment, or whether it needs its oil changed next month. Hopefully, as more and more city dwellers become familiar with the benefits of car sharing, organizations like Flexcar will continue to grow and spread across the country.


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Page last updated: June 5, 2005