Why I like ZipCar

I think ZipCar is sweet, and I think it makes a carless existence in an urban environment easier and within reach of more people.

Disclaimer. I live in the heart of San Francisco, a fairly dense urban environment (not Manhattan-dense, but still pretty dense). I own a car and a motorcycle and park them both in my building. Clearly, I’m far from carless, but I have a lots of friends who are.

The key to understanding the appeal of ZipCar is understanding its market. Anyone who lives in the suburbs, exurbs, or even outskirts of a city, is going to have a hard time relating to the appeal of ZipCar. ZipCar is not an attempt to provide a surburban-type car experience to city dwellers – this is impossible. Relative to owning a car in the ‘burbs, it’s inconvenient, expensive, and requires a lot of effort. Relative to owning a car in a dense urban environment, however, it’s none of the above.

If you own a car in the city, you don’t use it the same as you do if you live outside the city. The main problem with owning a car in a city is parking, which is at a premium in a dense environment. You have two choices: pay for a parking space, or park on the street. Neither is attractive.

Parking spaces are expensive (where I live in San Francisco, they are $250-300/mo.), and often aren’t in your building, but a couple blocks (or more) away. If you aren’t among the lucky few to get in-building parking, you can forget just parking in your garage and carrying in your groceries: you pull up outside your building, put your hazard lights on, quickly carry in everything and run back to your car (you’re blocking a lane of traffic), go put it in your garage than walk back to your apartment.

So why pay so much for an inconvenient parking space? Because the alternative is worse: not only do you have all the annoyances of the garage, but you also get to spend 20-45 minutes driving around looking for a space that’s at least a couple blocks away. There’s nothing worse than a long day at work followed by a half-hour of driving around in circles looking for a spot. If you’re parking on the street and choose not to use your car, you still have to move it every couple days to avoid tickets.

Hopefully, this clarifies that owning a car in the city sucks. But what about renting a car from a normal car-rental place like Hertz or Avis? They seem to offer a much better value ($8.50 an hour versus $60.00 a day, or $2.50 an hour). But this is misleading on two sides: actual price and convenience. Price-wise, how much of that 24-hour day are you going to use? Maybe 12 hours? The price goes up to $5.00 per hour. And, really, how often do you need a car for 12 hours? If you’re just running errands, you might need it for five hours, in which case the car is actually costing $12.00 per hour, not factoring in the time cost of the inconvenience of renting it.

What inconvenience?

Rental cars are far away, while ZipCars are nearby – the ZipCar model calls for a bunch of rental areas with just a few cars each, so they are always somewhat close. The classic rental car model has large, centralized lots with lots of cars. These are convenient when you’re at an airport, but less convenient when you’re in the city. For example, I have 25 ZipCars available within a few blocks of my office. The nearest Hertz is a half-hour walk or a twenty minute bus ride away.

Rental cars require paperwork, while ZipCars are fast to rent. Even if I chose to hike over to the Hertz, I wouldn’t be done. I still have to stand in line, fill out reams of paperwork, and then find my car. With ZipCar, I just walk up, wave my card, and drive away (yes, they also require paperwork, but I completed it two years ago).

Rental cars require advanced reservations; ZipCars are immediately available. Of the 25 cars around my office, 7 are available right now (I just checked). Both Hertz and Avis are sold out until next week.

Rental cars require me to still deal with the parking problems when I get home. I just return the ZipCar to its lot.

Except for multi-day rentals, ZipCars are clearly a better option than a typical rental car. This gets back to ZipCars target market: people who live in the dense urban environments and are just looking for something to make their carless lifestyle more feasible.

ZipCars aren’t supposed to duplicate the experience of having a car in the suburbs; they are supposed to be better than owning a car in the city. And in many ways, they’ve accomplished this.