Car Sharing Picks Up Speed -- and Groceries

Margarita Diaz and her husband, Matt Clausen, use a Zipcar about three blocks from their home on Capitol Hill.
Margarita Diaz and her husband, Matt Clausen, use a Zipcar about three blocks from their home on Capitol Hill. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Too much traffic and too little parking have already made Washington area drivers among the most enthusiastic adopters of car sharing -- and the two leading car-share companies are betting millions that many more area drivers are willing to give up their car keys.

Yesterday, one of the two major car-sharing companies that operate in the Washington region, Zipcar, announced a $25 million investment that will allow it to possibly double the 350 vehicles it already puts on area streets. In June, Zipcar's rival, District-based Flexcar, announced a major investment by a company started by AOL co-founder Steve Case.

That could set up the Washington area -- one of only two major markets where the two companies compete -- as a testing ground to see just how far car sharing can go in reducing congestion, pollution and parking woes.

"Some of the highest adoption neighborhoods in the country are in D.C.," said Scott Griffith, chief executive of Zipcar, based in Cambridge, Mass. He said that in the Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, where parking can be difficult to find, more than 10 percent of residents older than 21 use the service.

Shared vehicles, which include pickups and Mini Coopers, are rented by the hour and can be found in neighborhoods and near Metro stations.

"If you're not using your car several hours a day, or if you have ever left it long enough to forget where you parked it, that is our opportunity," said Mark D. Norman, chief executive of Flexcar. "The underutilized car is our competition."

Eric Hirshfield of Adams Morgan recently dumped his Jeep -- along with his $300 monthly payment, $100 monthly insurance bill and who-knows-how-much in gas, maintenance and parking tickets -- for a Zipcar membership. He says he uses car sharing a few times a week and figures he spends about $250 a month.

"It's still less than a car payment, no matter how you slice it," Hirshfield said. And he likes having the choice of vehicles. "I treat them as if they are my personal fleet."

Hirshfield is actually making money on the service: He rents two spaces in his back yard to Zipcar, pocketing $350 a month.

But Hirshfield, who owns the 18th & U Duplex Diner, concedes he is not like most folks in the region -- he can walk to work. For commuters who drive, car sharing would be too expensive.

Public officials have embraced car sharing and have worked with both companies to encourage it. Flexcar has had an agreement with Metro since 2001 to park vehicles at stations.

The District has reserved 86 spaces for car-sharing vehicles, said Anna McLaughlin of the District Department of Transportation. Some neighborhood residents have grumbled about giving up precious parking spots to private companies.

Arlington County has 72 on-street spaces. "Every car-share space saves the equivalent of 18 to 22 parking spaces," said Chris Hamilton, the county's manager of commuter services.

Other cities where car sharing has caught on include New York and San Francisco. Yesterday, Zipcar officials announced they are expanding to London.

Zipcar said it has 2,500 vehicles and 80,000 members. It hopes to expand to 1.4 million customers over the next decade.

Flexcar said it has just shy of 1,000 cars in eight metropolitan markets. The company has more than 200 vehicles in the Washington area.

Both companies said their business has doubled in the past year and that the car-sharing market is far from being tapped.

"You buy pizza by the slice, music by the song," Norman said. "Why not a car by the hour?"

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