Cars on Demand: Car Sharing Comes to Campus
Like clockwork, every Thursday night across America's college campuses, a select few of the car key-holding students partake in a ritual as old as the keg itself: the "Keg Run." But with the rising costs of tuition and car ownership, and as more and more students attend colleges in cities where parking costs are prohibitive, one would think that this elite group of students would dwindle in size.
However, with the advent of car sharing and the popularity of such car-sharing companies as Flexcar and Zipcar, a solution to this problem is now at hand. Car sharing, a concept that originated in Europe, lets individuals purchase the automotive equivalent of a vacation home time-share, by buying a membership in a car-sharing company. Members get to drive a company's vehicles for days or even hours at a time, while paying for no more than the time the car was actually used.
The two main car-sharing companies, Flexcar and Zipcar, offer members a variety of vehicle types to suit their specific needs. Feel like cruising in a convertible? Check out Flexcar's Mini Cooper convertible. Gotta make a Costco run for that weekend party? Just reserve one of Flexcar's Toyota Tacoma pickups. Or try a Honda Odyssey minivan if you want to take your crew of friends to a concert. Perhaps borrow Zipcar's BMW 325i for the night to really impress a date.
Borrow when on a budget
John Williams, a Flexcar representative, asks, "Why buy a whole car when you only need to use it a couple hours a day?" Flexcar, one of the largest car-sharing companies, is now partnering with universities such as the University of Florida, UCLA, Emory and the University of Maryland, to name just a few. These partnerships offer students, faculty and employees (as well as non-university members) access to vehicles when they want them and for as long as they want them, at an affordable price.
Even if you're not a college student, car sharing is ideal for young adults living in expensive cities. With housing costs skyrocketing, saving $900 a month on car payments, insurance, registration, parking, maintenance, repairs and gasoline can go a long way toward a down payment on a house and saying "sayonara" to your three roommates.
Although car sharing is gaining in popularity, it's currently only available in select cities. Flexcar offers its services in Atlanta; Gainesville, Florida; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; San Diego and Seattle.
Zipcar covers Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Minneapolis as well as Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
And both Flexcar and Zipcar are currently available in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C., with plans to expand to other cities.
A student's godsend
Unfortunately, for young people between the ages of 18 and 21, car-sharing memberships are typically off-limits. However, Flexcar makes undergraduate car sharing possible by offering memberships to those as young as 18 years old, at the same price as for older members.
Students like John Wist, a 19-year-old University of Maryland sophomore and a Flexcar member, couldn't imagine college without car sharing. "For me, it is nice to be able to have a way home without having to inconvenience my parents or rely on a friend," says Wist. Parking at the University of Maryland, like many other universities, can be very difficult and expensive, "but with Flexcar, you get a parking space so I never have to worry about spending time searching for parking," remarked Wist.
His only car-sharing complaint was that it took longer than he anticipated to be cleared for membership. According to Flexcar representative John Williams, "People under 21 are typically more difficult to insure so it takes a longer time for insurance companies to process their applications." The solution? Complete your application well before you arrive on campus to ensure that you have wheels when you want them.
Typically, members are required to pay a membership fee (around $40-$50 per year, unless waived by special promotional offers), and those approved (people with decent driving records will be approved; no vehicular manslaughters, DUIs, etc.) are sent a special radio frequency ID card by mail.
To reserve a car, first log onto the company's Web site and then select your desired vehicle by location and availability. Upon finding your reserved vehicle in its designated "Flexcar" or "Zipcar" parking space, simply wave your ID card across the windshield to unlock the vehicle and retrieve the keys from under the steering column.
When you're done, just return the vehicle to its designated reserved parking spot. Most car-sharing services charge around $8.50 per hour, while full days will run you only around $60. The hourly cost is minimal, considering that every expense associated with owning a car — fuel, insurance, maintenance, washing, roadside assistance, tires, oil changes — is included in the hourly rate and membership fee. In fact, Flexcar will even credit member accounts $5 for washing the car and $2 for refilling it, while Zipcar rewards car washes with a free hour of driving.
An ideal solution
For young people and students alike, this newish trend is a great way to have access to a car without the hassles and costs normally associated with vehicle ownership. Plus, car sharing is ideal for students attending colleges that are far away from their homes where it just doesn't make sense to bring your own car.
This service also fosters a more spontaneous lifestyle: If your summer vacation or job takes you to Europe for a month, you don't have to worry about your car while you are away. Even people who can afford to buy their own rides often choose to share because of the convenience.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to car share lies in the environmental benefits. According to Flexcar and Zipcar, each car-share vehicle removes 15-20 other vehicles from the road. Consequently, greenhouse gases are substantially reduced, newer vehicles with higher pollution control standards are on the road and fewer fossil fuels are being consumed.
So consider car sharing an ideal solution for your transportation needs, whatever your age and income.