Car-sharing picks up speed in D.C.

August 11, 2013

For months, Abigail Smith thought about selling her Ford Fusion hybrid. Especially when she had to pay the loan and insurance for a car she rarely drives.

While looking online for ways to save money, Smith, who lives in the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast, found RelayRides, a service that allows car owners to list their cars and rent them to people who live nearby.

“The first time was a little nerve-racking, but every time I get a repeat it’s a better feeling,” Smith said.

After she signed up in September of last year, weeks and then months passed without a renter. Now she has handed her hybrid to the carless more than 20 times. Some are visitors from out of town; others are students who want to go to Annapolis or the beach.

This is a good time for sharing, something of a throwback to a more community-oriented culture. It can also be a way to save money, and to simplify. Encouraged by city governments, many share the roads on two wheels through bike-sharing programs. Need a car for an afternoon’s worth of errands? A Zipcar — or its growing number of competitors — awaits.


A BMW Mini Cooper vehicle sits parked in one of Zipcar's spaces in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

It isn’t clear how many people are car-sharing locally, but a new Washington Post poll says 19 percent of District residents have used Zipcar or a similar service, up 9 percentage points since 2010. The usage figure drops to 7 percent across the region (and a mere 1 percent for residents of Fairfax and Loudoun counties). Across the country, 900,000 people had joined a car-sharing service as of January.

“Pretty much everyone I know has talked about car-sharing, but not many have done it,” said Leslie Hayward, 26, a policy analyst who lives in Mount Pleasant and doesn’t have a car. She hasn’t car-shared, either.

Nick Bartz, 25, lives in the U Street area only blocks from his workplace, restaurants and a Metro station. The health-care consultant says he rarely misses having a car, and he has never felt a need to rent one, even for a couple of hours.

“I don’t like to pay for membership fees for services I don’t know how much I’m going to use,” Bartz said.

But Christopher Hanks, who moved a couple of months ago from Old Town Alexandria to the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill, is feeling unburdened. After finding that a car can be more of a hassle than a convenience, the 34-year-old sold his car about a month ago.

“I’m from California; I’m used to having a car,” Hanks said. Now he walks to work. And when he needs to go farther, he uses Zipcar, which has a parking spot across the street from his home.

“I’m loving it,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.”

Over the years, the District’s Department of Transportation has tried to nurture the growth of car-sharing.

In 2005, DDOT assigned more than 80 curbside street spaces for car-sharing use, at a time when the concept was still fairly novel in the region. More recently, the city agency granted a permit that allows Car2Go’s 350 vehicles to park in any legal spaces across the city. Zipcar, which had 362 vehicles in the District in 2007, now has more than 1,000, and the start-up was recently acquired by Avis.

“We see the growth [of car-sharing] as vital to the quality of life and quality of transportation options for District residents and even visitors,” said DDOT spokeswoman Monica Hernandez. “Ultimately, car-sharing helps reduce private car ownership.”

Susan Shaheen, director of innovative mobility research at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center of the University of California at Berkeley, said car-sharing was growing steadily, if not strongly, until 2011, when membership in the United States jumped 40 percent. Now that some titans of the rental-car industry, including Avis and Enterprise, have joined the short-term sharing movement, more growth is likely, she said.

Several people have driven Nick Nigron’s Toyota Prius since last October, when he listed it in RelayRides not long after the service entered the D.C. region. The service’s local Web page features 200 cars on offer, including a 1995 Honda Accord for $5.25 an hour or $26 a day, a Ford Fiesta fondly named the “Green Hornet,” and a Mercedes-Benz SLK for $200 a day.

“If you’ve got a car, you can rent it to your neighbor and effectively cover the cost of your car,” said Andre Haddad, RelayRides’ chief executive.

Like Hanks, Nigron said that when he was growing up, owning a car was a big deal. He feels that has changed. Now the 33-year-old manager at a nonprofit organization is considering selling his car. Then he would rent one when he needed it.

One recent weekend, Hayward and her boyfriend were in Southeast and needed to return to Mount Pleasant as soon as possible. She knew that the trip on Metro could mean a long wait. After seeing a Car2Go on the street, they went online and tried to join but couldn’t do it immediately.

They ended up paying $40 for a cab.

“Now I’m definitely going to get a membership,” she said.

Capital Insight polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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