Photo: Zipcars Live Here.

Last week Zipcar, the local car-sharing company, announced a partnership with the City of Seattle and opened a new retail-style office downtown.

From the press release:

´╗┐The partnership extends the benefits of car sharing to all 10,500 individuals employed by the City of Seattle, enabling City employees to take alternate transit to work and know they have access to a car at the office for personal or business trips. Within just 10 blocks of City Hall, more than 60 Zipcars reside in nearby garages and on-street parking spots.

Both the City and Zipcar hope the partnership will serve as a role model to other large employers looking for ways to reduce their the number of single-occupancy trips made by their employees, as required by Seattle’s Commute Trip Reduction law. The city hopes that hundreds of employees will take advantage of the free Zipcar membership.

Although initial adopters of car sharing services like Zipcar were primarily the young and tech-savvy just out of college, this is changing. The average age of Zipcar’s 260,000 customers across 13 cities continues to go up, and is already past 30.

The slick new office (ironically located in what used to be the Department of Licensing) is a clear step in Zipcar’s effort to make car sharing appeal to more people, offering anyone interested in joining the opportunity to ask questions face-to-face, receive a demonstration of how to use a Zipcar, and the option to sign up on site.

You can also choose to sign up online from home and pick up your “Zipcard” at the office rather than waiting for it to arrive in the mail. Existing customers can use the office to reserve cars, ask questions, and anything else you can do online or over the phone.

As someone who has never and doesn’t plan to ever own a car, I had been thinking about joining for Zipcar since back when it was still Flexcar, and took opening day of the office as an opportunity to finally sign up. Signing up took no more than 10 minutes, and although I was able to walk away with a Zipcard, due to our state’s antiquated computer system, it takes a few days for Zipcar to check your driving history before you can start reserving cars, and my account was only just approved. Hopefully both Zipcar and the City can put pressure on the DOL to fix this soon. Being able to drive away on the same day as signing up would make the new office even more useful, and position Zipcar as an even better alternative to traditional rental car companies for last-minute reservations.

Zipcar claims that for every car they put on the road, 20 personal cars are taken off the road. Customer surveys show that between 50-60% of members sell their car or choose not to buy a car as result of joining, saving an average of $5,000 to $6,000 per year.

Last year Zipcar issued a “Low-Car Diet Challenge”, where 300 members gave up the keys to their personal vehicles for 30 days, and pledged to use only Zipcar and other forms of transportation. The result? Participants reported a huge increase in miles walked, biked, and traveled via transit, as well as a huge decrease in miles driven. When a fixed cost is replaced with a variable cost, people get smarter by combining what would otherwise be separate trips, says Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith. Many of the participants’ habits changed going forward.

There has been concern in the past about a shortage of Zipcars in South Seattle, specifically in the Rainier Valley along the light rail line that opens later this year. Although nothing has been decided yet, Zipcar hopes to start a dialog with Sound Transit soon to discuss how they can best integrate with the new light rail system.

Zipcar has worked with the developers of transit oriented developments in other cities, and hopes to do the same here. Developers can earn LEED points by providing parking spaces for car-sharing services, so hopefully in addition to a few cars at each station though a potential partnership with Sound Transit, nearby properties will have plenty of cars as well.

10-15% of Zipcar’s all-new vehicle fleet are hybrids, so many people who use Zipcar are driving a vehicle that is more fuel efficient than what they own or might otherwise buy. Members have also expressed lots of interested in electric vehicles and plugin-in hybrids. Griffith says Zipcar has the opportunity to act as a testbed for new vehicles before a dealer network is ready, and that they are in talks with “all the major auto companies” hoping to add pre-production vehicles to their fleet before they’re available for sale. Even though I wouldn’t say I enjoy driving, I’m very excited to try out an all-electric car.

What else is next for Zipcar? They already have mobile applications for popular smartphones such as BlackBerry and the iPhone that allow you to reserve a car as you are standing next to it, and Griffith says he envisions a day in the future when you won’t even need a card, and will be able to unlock vehicles using just your phone. Nick Sowards, Senior Account Executive for Cooperkatz, Zipcar’s PR firm, says to keep an eye out for an announcement from Zipcar related to technology in the near future.

Zipcar also recently started rolling out ski/bike racks, hoping to expand their appeal to the more outdoorsy crowd.

Car sharing is an important part of the broader solution to problems such as traffic congestion and climate change. Although gas prices have fallen, the expectation that they will rise again combined with the suffering economy has resulted in more and more people across the country continuing to switch to public transit. Zipcar has the opportunity to fill in gaps not covered by transit, offering piece of mind for anyone who is considering giving up their car, or not purchasing an additional car.

Once I’ve had a chance to test out Zipcar myself, I’ll post a follow-up. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences using them. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

13 Replies to “New Zipcar office and city partnership are big steps in company’s effort to expand”

  1. It’s crazy to think that one zipcar can replace 20 cars, but I guess it makes sense: most cars at any given time are just taking up space while parked. Zipcar does a great job of making the hassle of using their system less than the hassle of owning a car.

  2. There really should be zip cars at all link stations. That way anybody can get off the train and get to those places that are just past walking distance.

      1. Me too, and it works beautifully, but a lot of people won’t. Giving them the zipcar option will encourage them to use transit for the longer part of the trip, and make owning a car feel much less necessary – everyone wins.

  3. To the dismay of those of us on Beacon Hill, Zip took out the car that used to live right across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station!

    Their new business model is apparently to serve only those areas that are already high density (downtown, Capitol Hill, and a few others) and ignore the rest of Seattle. SE Seattle is down to just one (1) car, in spite of light rail service beginning in just 5 months!

    Wish we had FlexCar back.

    1. I agree, TransitVoter. I moved here after being a regular ZipCar user in Chicago. I like ZipCar… Their implementation of technology makes for extremely elegant end-user experience. I was excited about the Beacon Hill ZipCar location at the Red Apple and was considering ramping my subscription back up to a monthly plan what with the easy availability of a local car. Now the closest nearest location (“just down the street” according to the ZipCar email) is an additional 1.6 miles (or a 26 minute walk) away.

      While that certainly sucks bigtime, it made my decision quite a bit easier and means $50 or $75 a month that I won’t be spending on ZipCar.

      Something neat I just saw during a trip back to Chicago this weekend is that I-GO (a Chicago-based, non-profit version of ZipCar) allows riders to use a single prox-card to access both I-GO cars and CTA. Maybe a similar combination would be possible with ZipCar and ORCA cards?

  4. I’ve been a FlexCar/Zipcar user for about 4 years now and have no big complaints. I agree that’s it requires a critical mass of cars, but we’ve got a lot of cars to choose from in the U-District. There’s pretty much always something available, even if I have to walk a few blocks farther than I wanted to (happens especially on weekend evenings). Zipcar’s website reservation system is much much better than Flexcar’s was, and the phone reservations are easy enough.

    I will say that if we want a car for more than a couple days (for example, spending a week at the coast last summer) a traditional car rental is much cheaper, even though I have to pay for the supplemental liability insurance. I get collision coverage from my credit card, and I even had to use it once after a damaged wheel (not pretty but I did eventually get paid).

    1. I always use my credit car coverage, but I’ve never been in an accident in a rental, so I’ve always wonder how it’d work.

  5. So no chance they’ll put one in at Columbia Station? There are no car rental places open when the Amtrak pulls in at 8:30.


    I was considering joining zipcar last year until they yanked out a bunch of them from West Seattle. Once was at the Morgan St. Thriftway, walking distance from my house. Now I would have to take a bus to get to either car; only one at the central West Seattle location and one in White Center. Look at the number available downtown and north! Perhaps our use of the cars would increase if the cars were available and convenient to use. The former Flexcar at the Thriftway was consistently used.

    Around the time Flexcars were removed from West Seattle, the U-Haul added a line of per hour rental vehicles. Maybe this is the answer? Anyone used U-Haul hourly rentals? I don’t think they are hybrid vehicles.

  7. I was a devoted Flexcar member, but there is a big ‘ol world of difference between Flexcar and Zipcar. As a matter of fact, I canceled my membership a few months ago. I only use a car occasionally, and it was no longer cost effective to have to pay $50 a year for a membership fee in addition to the hourly rate. They’ve added a lot of other fees and penalties as well, and the customer service was awful. It took over a month to convert my membership initially because not only were the representatives rude, they were clueless. Then they yanked most of the cars out of West Seattle, so I would now have to take 2 buses to get to a car. Why bother? I agree completely with Transit Voter; I want Flexcar back.

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