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.