30 October 2009

How can you save a buck, your health, your city, and the planet!?

Americans love their cars right? So much so that we nearly have one for every person in the country (by count at least) and every newspaper has an automotive section. For decades the car has been the only transportation choice for 90% of Americans. New car sales has been a leading indicator of the economy.

With car-makers gaining more coverage in the headlines than the automotive section of the papers recently, a new story is percolating. Attitudes are shifting noticeably among the young (Gen Y'ers), and even older Americans. So much so that the LA Times car blog recently used the headline "A Rebel Without a Car?" while pondering a new JD Power and Associates report.  Naturally, these stories have generated skepticism and slight. After all, this is the American way of life. Yet, big car folks (i.e. Ford, the only non-bankrupt US automaker) have taken notice and even started to look at ways to embrace the trends.

And why not. These trends seem to follow a perceptible arc of young people and retirees moving back to cities. Further, both are groups who have been literally behind the wheel or passengers in cars for a significant portion of their lives. All of the creature comforts on earth don't make motoring down 16 lane, traffic clogged suburban shit strips any better.

Ok, so there might be a case for a movement of certain demographics (i.e. young professionals, empty-nesters) to desire more urban surroundings and more urban transportation options. This would certainly explain a great deal of the trends reported over the past decade with increased downtown and urban development across the country. It would also explain the trend of light rail development in dozens of places. Bicycling and plain walking seems to have grown in popularity too. Groups such as the ever-innovative Livable Streets Initiative have certainly made an impact in that regards.

Yet, it is almost certainly true that Americans won't just give up what has been not just a cultural icon, but an economic engine because of a severe economic downturn and a planetary crisis. Well, not if they have a choice. However, one thing that might just offer that choice and actually do a fair bit of good in the process is car-sharing. Now before the advent of RFID (radio-frequency ID chips), the mobile telephones (and internet), and GPS tracking the idea of sharing a car was what you had to do with siblings or parents.

Today, if you're a Zipster*, you can literally access thousands of cars conveniently parked in your neighborhood, on campus, near work, shopping, or transit stops all on your mobile phone or via the a quick reservation over the internet. Rent by the hour or day and don't worry about insurance or gas. Just follow some quick and easy to remember rules and you're all-set. Wave that member card over the windshield (or tap an app on your phone) and...

...it unlocks, wherever you're car is. No worries about maintenance, parking. Have a Scion Xb with lots of cargo space for a couple hours today and later this week pick up that important new client from the airport with a BMW. Want to get out of the city for a day-trip or weekend get away?ab a different vehicle fitting the weather, your needs, or your mood.

Oh, and you can do all of this and...
  1. save lots of money (hundreds of dollars a month for most car-sharers)
  2. live a more active, healthy lifestyle (car-sharers walk, bicycle, and use transit more)
  3. and help avert planetary disaster (on average one shared vehicle may take as many as twenty off the road)
    What's the Catch? Rules! If you share something you want those who share with you to be respectful of certain rules right? So return on time, with gas (gas-card is included), clean, no smoking and please keep pets in a carrier. That sort of stuff. Oh, and there is of course ensuring that the vehicles are serviced and then dealing with potential mishaps and market demand. What happens when a car you booked isn't back on time or you can't get a car when you need one?

    The leading, company in the US, ZipCar, and its for and not-for-profit counter-parts, have attracted amazingly satisfied and loyal-followers despite such challenges. They have honed service and in many ways perfected some of the most obvious challenges (i.e. your car is late in returning when you pick it up, "how about switching to one in the next spot over or at the worst let us reach the person who has it and let's change-up your reservation and make it gratis for your wait?").

    What makes this service so compelling to Urban Mechanic is that it has the ability to scale (as its already in scores of cities big and small) and is something that is clearly commercially viable. For so many situations to list here it improves upon having to own an automobile unless you literally live in the middle of nowhere. Further, for cities lacking significant transit options, car-sharing offers an amazing opportunity to supplement transportation choices. Car-sharing could work quite well if you ride the bus downtown to work, but also might need a car some evenings for big hauls to the grocery store.

    *Zipster is what Zip Car, a leading (for-profit) car-sharing company calls its members. Of which there an estimated 325,000 plus. The company, which has been featured (everywhere) was part of a larger look at car-sharing in a CNN Story from August of this year. The story takes a fairly in-depth look at the phenomenon, the forces behind it, and ZipCar (the good the bad and the ugly).--

    NOTE - Urban Mechanic is a member of ZipCar (and uses the service frequently, along with numerous other modes of transport). ALSO NOTE - This post is but an introduction (albeit a bit lengthy) to car-sharing as a topic. Urban Mechanic will continue explore other facets of car-sharing, beyond ZipCar, such as non-profit models, and a separate, but related phenomenon, bicycle sharing.

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