Alexander McLean knows a deal when he sees it.
Check out the Persian rug lying in his $1 million Arlington penthouse. McLean, a semi-retired contractor, bought it on eBay for $50. He nabbed the modernist artwork hanging above the living room love seat for about the same price.
So when McLean deduced that he could save hundreds of dollars a month by using a rental car stationed some 30 feet from his condo instead of driving his own vehicle, he decided to give it a try.
It turned out to be a perfect pairing of frugality and function.
Today, McLean and his wife, Hallie, have given up their Chevrolet minivan, which they sold for a tidy profit. When they need to go shopping, they rely on Zipcar -- one of two car-share companies in the Washington region -- and rent a Toyota Matrix for $8.50 an hour. When Home Depot beckons, they rent a pickup truck for a slightly higher rate.
In the land of car sharing, there are no gas charges, insurance fees, maintenance costs or hours spent waiting in line for emissions tests, advocates say.
"You don't have any of that anxiety," said McLean, 54, who has been using the service for a little more than a year. "You just have the use of a car when you need it."
In Arlington, where Zipcar and its competitor Flexcar have enjoyed wide support as part of a pilot program, county officials are hoping even more residents will become car-share converts.
Last month, government leaders expanded the county's agreement with the companies, making car sharing a permanent part of the county's efforts to encourage residents to give up their cars and to walk, ride bikes and use public transportation whenever possible as ways of easing congestion and reducing pollution.
As part of the expansion, Zipcar and Flexcar have added more cars in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Crystal City and Pentagon City, while expanding the program into two new neighborhoods, Shirlington and Columbia Pike.
Together the two companies now provide about 40 vehicles in Arlington, up from 12 during the pilot phase.
"This is exactly the kind of creative alternative that we pride ourselves on," said Jay Fisette (D), chairman of the Arlington County Board. "Finding practical but creative alternatives that are consistent with our values . . . it's good for the environment, it's good for air quality, it reduces congestion and it encourages walking."
Each company charges an annual membership fee based on whether the rental is for personal or corporate use. During the initial phase of the pilot program, Arlington has been subsidizing the application fee for county users and providing a small driving credit, but that subsidy is scheduled to end July 18.
Alexandria has eight cars through a similar arrangement with the two companies. The cars are stationed primarily at Metro stops.
The city provides a monetary incentive to encourage residents and businesses to use car-sharing services available in the city. "Carshare Alexandria!" will reimburse up to $105 of membership and application fees for residents and up to $50 for a business's membership fees, plus half of each employee's application fee, up to $20. This applies to the first year's membership.
Unlike traditional rental car outfits, car-sharing companies station small numbers of vehicles in neighborhoods. Users can reserve online or by phone for increments as short as a half-hour. Both companies require would-be renters to fill out an application and pay a $25 fee, and they check users' driving records before they are cleared to use the service.
Once approved, drivers are mailed electronic key cards that they use to get into the vehicles, which must be returned to the reserved parking spots where they were picked up. Both companies include gas, insurance and maintenance in their rates.
Perhaps most appealing to many drivers are the companies' sporty models -- Zipcar's fleet includes Mini Coopers, BMWs and Volvos. Another perk is the dedicated parking spaces that car-share drivers enjoy while other motorists are forced to circle urban centers searching for that often elusive spot.
Officials say car sharing began in Switzerland in the 1980s and has since expanded throughout Europe. The service emerged in the United States in the late 1990s. Today, Zipcar and Flexcar boast more than 14,000 members in the Washington area, where service continues to expand through an increase in the number of cars and partnerships with communities to provide more dedicated street parking. The heaviest concentrations of cars are in Arlington and Montgomery counties and the District, but the service is also available in some parts of Fairfax and Prince George's counties.
"The District is looking at Arlington as a model [for future growth], but it won't be identical," said Bill Scott, acting general manager for Flexcar's Washington region. "We're both interested in Alexandria. It will also see expansion of car-sharing in the not-too-distant future."
Officials say car sharing works best when vehicles are stationed near mass transit centers such as Metro stops. The proximity allows users either to get to the car via train or bus, or in many cases take the train to work and use a car-share rental for lunchtime errands or work-related calls.
Zipcar even makes its logos less conspicuous on Volvos, to allow renters to use the vehicles for work without revealing that they're rentals.
"We've made it so much better than owning a car for the urban resident," said Gabe Klein, Zipcar's regional vice president. "Arlington is one of the best counties to work with. They're among the most forward-thinking transportation people in the country."
Andy Affleck, 37, is a project manager for a federal contractor based in Arlington. He takes the Metro to work from his home in Herndon and uses a Zipcar to visit clients during the day.
Before car sharing came along, he had to borrow a colleague's car to get to meetings. One unfortunate day, he had to take his boss's new car.
"I was terrified of taking it," Affleck recalled. "I had a fantasy of picking up a steering wheel on the side of the road and bringing it back to the office saying, 'Well, I was able to save this much.' "
While the services are popular, they aren't perfect. As car sharing's popularity has grown, it has sometimes been difficult for renters to find cars on weekends, when usage can be heavy.
Affleck remembers one occasion when a car he reserved wasn't there. On another occasion, the back axle on one of his rentals was acting up.
"But [the company] was good about it," Affleck said, noting that they found him another car nearby. "There was no reason to be the angry consumer."
Nor is car sharing without its detractors, particularly those who don't use the service and do not like the fact that parking spots have been reserved for the program.
"A few people get upset that we've removed some of the on-street parking spaces, but I'll tell you I personally have made a commitment to add hundreds of spaces on the street, and we're doing that," Fisette said. There's been a huge net gain of spaces in Arlington" for general use.
At first, McLean's brother James poked fun of him for renting cars when he needed to run errands, taunting, "can't you just buy a car?"
But the benefits, McLean says, are undeniable. On average, he spends $75 a month on Zipcar rentals, he said. Like a lot of users, he subscribes to both companies' services to maximize the number of cars at his disposal.
Recently, with frequent trips to Home Depot while he renovates his Ballston condominium, his monthly bills have been running more in the $200 range. But he says that's nothing compared with the cost of owning a car.
"When you do the math, you save thousands, thousands," McLean said, noting that he factored his car's annual depreciation into his computation. Another perk, he boasts, is the $100 a month he now makes renting out the parking spot he owns in his condo's parking garage.
Last week, McLean needed a gift for his wife in celebration of their 26th wedding anniversary. He couldn't get to Tysons Corner on Metro, so he rented a Zipcar.
Parked in front of the Altavista Condominium, which is situated nearly atop the Ballston Metro station, was his white Toyota Matrix with the motto "wheels when you want them" printed on the bumper. The car was parked on the street along with two Flexcars. When he returned from the errand, he parked it in the same spot. No hunting for a spot. No fumbling for coins. Just park and go.
Of course, in a car culture like this one, letting go is tough, even when you face Washington's traffic congestion, which is ranked the third worst in the country, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco, for the fifth year in a row.
"Americans are so tied to their automobiles," McLean said. "It's like an extension of their personalities. But to me it's always just been transportation. I've never felt it was part of who I am."
With gas prices soaring and traffic getting worse, more people are coming around to McLean's way of thinking.
Membership in Arlington's two car-sharing companies has jumped from 1,180 to more than 2,500 members since the county started the pilot program in March 2004.
Last year, Arlington conducted a survey of 426 users to determine the impact car sharing was having in the county. In the study, 70 percent of those polled said they saved money on transportation as a result of the service. The same study found that up to 70 percent of those surveyed have put off purchasing a first or second vehicle, and on average drive 3,850 fewer miles each year since joining a car-share service.
"People should just give it a shot," Fisette said. "Try it. You might like it."
For more information on car-share services, visit www.zipcar.com or www.flexcar.com.