Zipcar gains two competitors for Washington drivers


Car2go, a subsidiary of Daimler, launched its car-sharing program in Washington on Saturday with 200 Smart cars. (Courtesy of car2go)

Car-sharing companies may soon be the ones doing the sharing, as two new services set up shop in Washington.

Car2go, a subsidiary of Daimler, expanded to the District on Saturday with a fleet of 200 Smart cars. Earlier this year, Hertz launched its own car-sharing service, On Demand, in Washington with 25 vehicles.

“D.C. just makes a lot of sense for us,” said Nicholas Cole, head of Car2go North America. “There’s a dense population, there’s not much parking and people are used to this kind of transit.”

Zipcar, which arrived in the District in 2000, now has about 800 cars in the area. The company says demand for car sharing continues to grow steadily.

“At the beginning, a lot of big companies pooh-poohed car sharing as something for the lunatic fringe,” said Mark Norman, president and chief operating officer of Zipcar. “But now, large, well-established companies are foraying into this space. It benefits all of us.”

Washingtonians are used to mixing and matching their modes of transportation, said Cole of Car2go, making the District the perfect market for multiple car-sharing programs to co-exist.

“The way we think about it, the tide raises all boats,” Cole said. “The business models are so different [between Zipcar and Car2go] that I can see people using both services.”

Unlike Zipcar, which requires that vehicles be picked up and dropped off at specific locations, Car2go allows users to leave cars at metered parking spots anywhere in the District.

“Our cars are truly free-floating,” Cole said. “You can pick up a car in Dupont Circle, drive across town to Georgetown and leave it there.”

Users can use Car2go’s mobile app to look up available cars, as well as their locations and statuses — clean, dirty, full of gas or empty. Although the service takes reservations, it also allows users to check out any unused parked car.

“There’s a natural gravity at work with the cars,” Cole said. “They tend to go to the business, restaurant and shopping districts during the day. At night, they tend to go to residential areas. They work themselves out.”

Car2go, which began in Europe in 2008, expanded to North America the following year. The company currently has outposts in Austin, Vancouver and San Diego (where it has an all-electric fleet). The company plans to open in Portland later this week.

In January, Hertz On Demand, which started in New York in 2008, expanded to the District. The program currently has 25 vehicles and about 3,000 members in the area, according to spokeswoman Paula Rivera.

But even with the increasingly popularity of car sharing, profits have proven difficult. Neither Hertz On Demand nor Car2go would comment on whether they are profitable; Zipcar became profitable for the first time late last year, 11 years after the company’s founding.

Even so, Norman says he’s optimistic about the future of car sharing.

“You can do a ton of things in D.C with just the Metro,” said Norman of Zipcar. “But there are certain times when you just need a car.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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