The first thing that people ask when thinking about going car-free is “But how do you get groceries?” followed by “But what if you need to go to Ikea?”
The truth is, people all over Seattle are living without owning cars while still supplying themselves with groceries and making the occasional trip to Ikea just fine. Part of that has been due to car-sharing programs like ZipCar.
Before ZipCar was in Seattle, Flexcar was the car-free Seattleite’s best friend. Flexcar and ZipCar are based on a basic model: members can reserve a car almost anywhere in the city. They’re all parked at special parking spots, so it’s easy to find them and return them.
Members pay by the hour or the day, rather than paying by the day or week like you would if you went through a traditional car rental agency (such as Avis). So, instead of cars sitting on a lot or in someone’s garage when not in use, Flexcar allowed cars to be truly shared.
A member could reserve a car from 9 a.m. to noon to go shopping, then from noon to 6 p.m. someone else could use the same car to take a mini road trip. At 6 p.m., the car could be used by yet another someone to go out to dinner, and so on. Best of all, everything is included in the hourly price: insurance, gas, maintenance, even emergency assistance.
When Flexcar first came to Seattle, Seattleites excitedly applied and waited for their IDs card in the mail. Soon, Flexcar became a trusted part of many families. Flexcars were seen helping with otherwise carless Seattleites with moves, picking up relatives at the airport, taking pets to the vet, and of course grocery shopping.
Anytime riding the bus or walking would be impossible or awkward, we were able to get a Flexcar and go. The fact that Flexcar existed felt like a game-changer. FlexCar members waved at other Flexcar drivers when we passed them on the street. There were meet-ups and contests. Flexcars “marched” in local parades. Flexcar was cool.
In 2007, Flexcar was purchased by ZipCar, a similar, much larger company. Some FlexCar members were worried. Would this mean that Flexcar would go all corporate and forget about the car-sharing community that they had built from the ground up? ZipCar proved to be just as great, though (although a little more expensive).
And now, ZipCar has announced that they will be purchased by Avis for $500 million. Within minutes, ZipCar’s Facebook page was flooded with negative comments and threats to cancel memberships, with fears of ZipCar “selling out” to be able to charge more and become more like Avis.
Avis is a car rental agency that works a bit like this: you reserve a car, thinking you’ll have a set price. Then, you may find that you’ll need to add taxes, service charges, insurance and other fees until the cost of your rental is around twice what the quoted price is. Gas isn’t included. And you have get yourself to their office during open hours to pick up the car. Avis is in many ways the opposite of ZipCar.
An interesting addition to this mix in Seattle is Car2Go, an international car-sharing program that launched here in December. Car2Go is very similar, but unlike ZipCar which charges by the hour or day and Avis which charges by the day or week, Car2Go charges by the minute or hour.
To the question “is there a place in Seattle for another car-sharing program?” Car2Go can now answer that it doesn’t matter, because ZipCar may be racing down the path from car-share company to rental car company light, leaving the market wide open to Car2Go.
Are ZipCar members worried about what Avis will do to change ZipCar? Sure they are. Is this purchase a good thing for ZipCar and Avis? Time will tell.
ZipCar’s stated hopes are from the words of ZipCar’s Scott Griffith, chairman and CEO: “By combining Zipcar's expertise in on-demand mobility with Avis Budget Group's expertise in global fleet operations and vast global network, we will be able to accelerate the revolution we began in personal mobility.”
Hopefully the revolution doesn’t fizzle out and get abandoned if the“new” car-sharing segment of Avis doesn’t grow as fast or make as much money as they are projecting, leaving those of us who supported ZipCar and Flexcar from the beginning without "wheels when we you want them."