Car sharing is an excellent way to help your wallet and the environment – and it’s coming soon to a neighbourhood near you
by Jim MacInnis
I needed a desk. The novelty of using the floor as a workstation and sharing my keyboard with two cats had worn off. In the past I would have waited until evening when my girlfriend returned home with the car to run my errand. No longer: like 6,000 of my fellow Ontarians, I have joined Zipcar, a United States-based car-sharing service, which made its debut in Toronto in 2006.
Zipcar was established in the fall of 1999 when its two founders, fledgling entrepreneurs Robin Chase and Antje Danielson, decided to adopt an idea they had come across in Berlin while on vacation. Duplicating the German system, they placed cars in designated parking areas throughout Boston’s dense urban landscape so that people who occasionally needed a vehicle could easily access one for a reasonable price. Car sharing, Chase and Danielson believed, would encourage commuters to use transit to get to work and Zipcar for errands requiring a car. The success of Zipcar was almost immediate, and by 2001 it was a presence in Washington, D.C. and New York as well.
Despite Zipcar’s recent arrival to Toronto, car sharing is not new. Kevin McLaughlin, founder and president of AutoShare, a Toronto-based car-sharing outfit established in 1998, has witnessed the rise in popularity of car sharing among urbanites. “The growth has been quite steady and always verging on exponential, especially in the last couple of years,” says McLaughlin, whose client list recently grew to almost 7,000 members. McLaughlin, also a founding member of Vancouver’s Co-operative Auto Network, sees car sharing as an obvious way to diminish the city dweller’s ecological footprint, which, for him, includes powering his home and office using environmentally friendly energy sources.
Adam Giambrone, chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, says, “the reality is that [public transportation] in most cases does not drop people off at their front door. Carsharing services provide another option to people, while reducing the number of cars on the road.”
Zipcar and AutoShare estimate that every car they rent represents as many as eight to 20 not being driven – a significant number considering that the average car produces between 4,500 and 5,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide every year (along with carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons). Zipcar’s nearly 200,000 members worldwide translate into 40,000 fewer cars on the road since 1999, either because individuals divest themselves of an old car or choose not to buy a new one – new members often arrive fresh from shedding an older, gas-guzzling car built when pollution controls were less stringent. Zipcar also claims that people who join car-sharing programs increase their use of public transportation by more than 40 percent after becoming a member.
Michael Lende, regional vice-president of Zipcar Toronto, insists that car sharing is essential for a healthy urban environment. “It’s a matter of logic. These streets aren’t going to get wider; the population isn’t going to shrink. People should ask themselves, ‘Are our kids going to have to move to a coastal community just to be able to breathe the air or can we fix what’s here?’”
The proof that more and more people are using car-sharing services is reflected in the bottom line. AutoShare’s annual revenue in 2007 was three million dollars, and McLaughlin expects to surpass the four-million-dollar mark in the near future. Zipcar, which, thanks to the recent merger with Seattlebased Flexcar, now operates in 48 cities, has annual revenues of $60 million worldwide (a number that is expected to double in 2008) and plans to open in dozens more cities internationally. Much of this success can be attributed to the ease inherent in the rental process.
Potential Zipcar members are approved after completing a short application on the company’s website. New members pay a $30 application fee in addition to a membership fee (the fee can cost $55 annually or range from $50 to $250 monthly, depending on the driving plan selected and how often a member will drive). Better still, Zipcar offers hourly rates ranging from nine dollars to $12.50, depending, again, on the user’s plan. A “Zipcard” (the aptly named device that serves as a membership card, locks and unlocks the car door and electronically logs users’ usage) can be picked up from a Zipcar office or delivered via mail. Indeed, visiting a Zipcar office may be the only time you ever need to speak with a Zipcar employee. Members make reservations online by selecting from an up-to-the-second list of cars that are available in their city. No notice is required; if the car you want is available, it’s yours. To pay for gas, members use a special Zipcar credit card tucked into the driver’s visor. Driving charges appear immediately on users’ credit cards and can be reviewed on the Zipcar website. There are no rental office waiting lines and no I-ordered-a-convertible-but-I-am-driving-a-cargo-van surprises.
AutoShare members use a system that is equally convenient if a little less technologically advanced. To retrieve and return car keys, AutoShare members use a master key that opens a lockbox located in each lot. The user fills out a log sheet to confirm that the car is in good shape. If gas goes below the halfway mark, users pay to fill the tank and submit their receipts to AutoShare, which reimburses the member on the next monthly invoice.
Most of AutoShare’s cars are fuel-efficient ones like the Toyota Yaris and Honda Civic, but you can also rent vans and trucks. (Zipcar rents a variety of cars that range in fuel efficiency.) “It would be great to have an entire fleet of alternative-energy vehicles,” says McLaughlin, “but nobody wants to accept the fact that they cost more to buy and thus rent. Luckily, what we do has environmental benefits anyway.”
Car sharing can come in handy for emergencies or impromptu jaunts. “When you have three kids and a bunch of gear, you don’t want to be traipsing through the snow in the middle of February,” says Esther Shron, who has been a Toronto AutoShare member for more than a year. Shron, whose spouse drives a car, is happy that they have made do with one car for a family of five. “Gas and insurance are included in the hourly rate, and it has saved us a ton of money by not owning a second car. If I had a second car, I’d get in it all the time.”
Lende says that too many people are paying for their car when they are not using it. “If you paid for your whole pizza by the slice, you’d think twice about that third or fourth piece. [Car sharing] allows members to stand back and consider their usage.” Zipcar figures suggest that one car in its fleet reduces driving per person by about 50 percent.
For now, to use Zipcar or AutoShare you have to live or work in or near Toronto, but smaller car-sharing services operate in other Ontario cities. Ottawa residents can join VRTUCAR and pick up cars from 33 locations around the city. Grand River CarShare operates out of the Kitchener-Waterloo area. There are also car-sharing co-ops in Guelph, Kingston and London, and it is safe to assume that business will blossom, given the heightened awareness the public has of our astronomical carbon emissions.
Driving home through the crowded streets of Toronto’s north end, I’m relieved that I don’t have to do this every day. My new desk is in the back seat of a car I probably won’t need again for quite some time. “Car sharing is like the patch for car owners,” says McLaughlin. “You’re kicking a nasty habit.”
Jim MacInnis is the editorial assistant at ON Nature.