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Shared ticket to ride

Marketplace Staff May 26, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: Gas prices slid a couple of pennies this week, but we’re still paying 76 cents more a gallon than we were last Memorial Day Weekend. And that seems to be pushing people to rethink how — and what — they drive.

Consumer Reports did some asking around. A third of people asked said the high cost of gas is making them consider replacing their cars. Many are looking at hybrids. Some are thinking of ditching their cars altogether. But they are not ready to give up driving. Carolyn Kellogg reports on a service designed just for them.

CAROLYN KELLOGG: Say you need to pick up the tuxedos for your wedding. You jump in the car and head to Tux-R-Us, right? That’s what Dave Thomas did … sort of.

DAVE THOMAS: So we reserved the car the night before. They have the actual schedule right there online so you can see what cars are reserved when. A fob — which is basically an electronic key — will open any of the cars in any of the lots that you’ve reserved. Got to the place, picked up the tuxes, came back.

Dave and his fiance use Philly CarShare. It’s one of more than a dozen companies with names like Flexcar and Zipcar that let people in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and other cities use cars only when they need them.

Here’s how car sharing works. You pay to become a member and for a usage plan. In Philly, one option is $50 bucks a year plus $8 dollars an hour and a few pennies per mile.

What you don’t pay for: the car, registration, taxes. Insurance? Covered by your membership fee. And if you have to stop for gas, you won’t have to pay for it — just use the gas card that comes with the car.

THOMAS: We’re saving so much money. I mean, parking alone we’re saving about $200 a month, and then add on insurance. It’s a really big savings.

Big savings for Dave is good, but I wanted to get the big picture. So I turned to Susan Shaheen. She’s… well, I’ll let her tell you.

SUSAN SHAHEEN: I’m the policy and behavioral research program leader for the California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways Program, which is headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley.

In other words, an expert in how people get around. Shaheen says car sharing, which started in Germany in the 1980s, really took off in America in 2000. And recently, things have been zooming along.

SHAHEEN: In 2005, membership in the United States rose by approximately 46 percent.
That makes 100,000 drivers.

So who’s inclined to car share?

SHAHEEN: These type of people might drive less than 10,000 miles a year, take transit, cycle, walk quite a bit. And so what they’re doing is supplementing their other modes with car sharing. They tend to be a little bit younger, very well educated and a little bit lower income.

OK, you’re thinking, if a bunch of people all use one car, does that mean fewer cars on the road? Why, yes.

TONIA LOPEZ-FRESQUET: A study just came out that said each car sharing vehicle ends up replacing 14.9 individual other vehicles.

That’s Tonia Lopez-Fresquet, quoting a report from the National Academies. Tonia herself works with Flexcar in Los Angeles.

That’s right, Los Angeles. Home to 8 million cars. Can car sharing really gain traction in the drivingest town on Earth? Leslie Kendall has his doubts. He’s curator of the Petersen Auto Museum, the center of L.A. car culture.

LESLIE KENDALL: Los Angeles is the only major modern city that was designed around the automobile. We have miles and miles of freeway around here.

Almost 400 miles worth. In addition to those practical concerns, there’s an emotional resistance, too. Angelenos admit that cars say something about you: they reflect your income, your hip quotient (MiniCooper) or your frugality (Honda Civic).

KENDALL: People in Los Angeles treat their cars like another layer of clothing. You put on a car as much as you get into one. I would miss my car. I like my car. I have it set up just how I like it.

And you just can’t pimp your ride when you drive a shared car. You also can’t smoke in it. You can drive your dog to the park, but you have to keep Fido in a pet carrier en route, and leave no pet hair behind. Baby seats are OK, but they can’t stay in the car. Yet none of that is slowing Flexcar’s L.A. expansion. William del Valle is general manager of the company’s Southern California operations.

WILLIAM DEL VALLE: Currently our Los Angeles fleet’s at 22 vehicles and then we’ll be growing to 100 by the end of the year. It’s really our model, it’s a recognition that yeah, it can work just about anywhere. And certainly it’s gonna work here in Los Angeles.

What makes him so sure? One simple number.

DEL VALLE: The average cost of owning a car in Los Angeles, I want to say is about $880 a month.

Whoah. That’s what I pay in rent. And it turns out that while we may think we live in our cars, we don’t — or at least we don’t have to. The average Zipcar user said they drove more than 5,000 miles per year, but barely topped 1,000 after becoming a member. Like Dave Thomas in Philadelphia, these people find more efficient ways to get around town.

THOMAS: Most places we can either walk, or take the subway, or take a bus — so it’s only for those two or three times a month trips, like going to pick up dog food, where you really need a car.

You know, for the important stuff. Like the occasional tuxedo.

In Los Angeles, I’m Carolyn Kellogg for Marketplace Money.

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