Shed the car, stay mobile: It's car-sharing

Dave Shaw doesn't really choose to be carless in Seattle. He just doesn't want to own one.

An avid bicyclist, he'd just as soon pedal when possible, but realizes that there are times when a car is a virtual necessity, which is why he has decided to try car-sharing.

Mr. Shaw became a charter member of Flexcar, a member-based business, when it began in Seattle earlier this year. "I signed up immediately and have been delighted," he says. "It fills a hole for me." He also thinks it saves him several thousand dollars, but more on that later.

The concept, in which individuals pay to share access to a fleet of vehicles, has met with some success in Europe and now is showing up in North America.

Montreal has had a program since 1995. Toronto and Portland, Ore., since 1998. Seattle, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Washington are among other US cities that have recently launched car-sharing ventures or have ones in the planning stage.

This is not a franchise. These are local start-ups with different names and structures - CarLink in San Francisco, Auto Share in Toronto, Commun-Auto in Montreal, etc. - that are far different from car-rental companies.

Their common objective is to provide "all the freedom of driving, without all of the expense, hassles, and pollution," to quote CarSharing.Net, a nonprofit car-sharing Web site.

A Swiss study indicates car-sharing reduces individual driving by over 70 percent with no perceived loss of mobility. Even when the change is less drastic, car emissions are cut, making it environmentally attractive.

Shaw's situation offers an interesting window on how car-sharing looks from an insider's perspective. Since moving into Seattle's densely populated Capitol Hill neighborhood, he's tried various transportation strategies.

For a while, he owned a compact car. When it proved too small in putting on cycling events, a livelihood that sometimes requires him to transport a load of signs and equipment, he bought a van. But the van was a chore to drive in city traffic. Plus, the maintenance was costly and the parking difficult. "I sold it to get it out of my hair," he explains.

Shaw's convinced he can get by without a car most of the time. He usually bikes or walks about two miles to work, sometimes takes a bus, and occasionally calls a cab or rents a car.

The problem with the latter, though, is expense, an estimated $40 or $50 a day. Plus, he seldom needs a car all day.

With Flexcar, he can sign up for a car by the hour and is charged only for the time it takes to run his errands. (In a cost comparison, Flexcar estimates its members would spend $130.50 a month if they used the car for five trips - two for errands, two for shopping, and one for recreation - while car ownership over the same month would cost $290.)

The fees are based on time and mileage, with bills issued at the end of the month.

To join, new members pay a $25 application fee. The time and mileage fees thereafter are $3.50 an hour and 90 cents a mile.

Options exist, however, that lower the rates. For example, after paying a one-time initiation fee of $250 to join the Bronze Club category, Shaw now pays $20 in monthly dues. That way he's charged $2 a hour and 50 cents a mile.

On average, he says, he uses a Flexcar about twice a week to run errands. If he needs to go out of town, say to Olympia, Wash., 60 miles away, he'll usually rent a car, since he finds that Flexcar ceases to be a bargain beyond a 30-mile driving radius.

With 752 members, Flexcar is the largest and fastest-growing car-sharing venture in the country. This early success leads Shaw to believe Flexcar will survive after start-up public subsidies are removed. King County has a two-year agreement to partly fund the operation as it gets established.

A larger membership is advantageous for Shaw, since it means more car locations and the recent addition of a pickup truck to the 17-vehicle fleet.

While the car-to-member ratio is now about 44 to 1, which may seem high, a number of members are in a "test drive" category and don't use the cars with much regularity.

Shaw figures about five Flexcar vehicles are parked within a five-minute walk from his home. These are left in clearly marked parking spots in public lots, an arrangement worked out in conjunction with the city, which supports traffic-easing initiatives. As a result, Flexcar members don't have to play musical chairs searching for parking spots in the city.

Besides parking, Flexcar also covers the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance, and repairs.

This isn't to say members don't have some duties.

"It's up to us, the users, to fill the tank and keep the car clean," Shaw says. This helps to foster a sense of ownership that doesn't come from simply renting a car.

A company credit card is locked inside a box in each car. Members, who carry a master key that unlocks every vehicle in the fleet, use the card to pay for gas. The box also contains a log, which must be completed each time the car is driven.

Reservations are made by automated phone system, using a PIN number. A Flexcar staffer stands ready to field calls when the car fails. If a member, however, inconveniences another with the late return of a car, the delinquent pays the other individual's cab fare and is hit with a $20 penalty.

Shaw says he occasionally extends a reservation, but always overestimates how long he'll need a car. That way he avoids any late fees. If he returns early, he simply calls to cancel any unneeded blocks of time.

All the cars in the Flexcar fleet are new, green Honda Civics identifiable by a discreet, yet clearly visible company logo on the driver's side.

Shaw doesn't mind this limited form of commercialism, since it prompts questions about a program he endorses.

But if space were sold for unrelated ads, as on taxis, that's where he'd draw the line. "I'd have a problem with that," he says.

Right now, he's enthused by the money he's saving. On average he estimates he spends $100 a month as a member of Flexcar, or $1,200 a year. Throw in another $1,000 on annual car rentals and he calculates he still saves at least $2,000 a year over what he'd spend to own a car.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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