View Full Version : Zipcar: 'New Car Rental Idea'

October 10th, 2003, 06:46 PM
October 10, 2003

New Car Rental Idea Depends on Courtesy of Strangers


New Yorkers may not like it, but they are, by necessity, great sharers.

They share tables in restaurants, benches in parks, inches on sidewalks and air in the subway. In a living arrangement most of the country would probably find far too Marxist the co-op they even share responsibility for apartment buildings.

Now, some people in the city are trying to share something else, a thing many Americans regard as the apotheosis of private property: the car. Over the last year and a half, Zipcar, a company based in Boston, has been stocking parking garages around Manhattan, Brooklyn and Hoboken with brand-new cars and persuading people to rent them in what amounts to an automotive co-op.

In many ways, the idea is just Hertz with an urban oil change. Instead of having to rent a car for a day, you can take one out for as little as an hour, and you do not have to go to the rental agency to pick up a car; it comes to you. Volkswagen Golfs, Mini Coopers and other eye-catching cars are parked strategically all over several dense residential neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and Park Slope.

But, in other ways, Zipcar lies in a strange land somewhere between capitalism and group therapy. It asks its drivers to assume responsibilities that traditional rental companies assume for a price: clean up after yourself. Fill up the car when it needs it. (There's no excuse: a free gas credit card is tucked into the visor.) Don't take your slobbery dog along. Don't smoke. And, remember, be punctual because another driver will often be waiting at the garage to jump into the car as soon as you jump out, like your little brother getting his turn in the family wagon.

The company's avuncular Web site, www.zipcar.com, counsels, "Always keep the next member in mind when you leave the car and exercise the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

The company's chief executive, Scott Griffith, is even more emphatically neighborly. He describes the company as less about transactions than about creating a village of customers with a strong sense of community spirit. "You're a part of the sum of the whole," he said.

He hopes that all those parts will add up to a tidy sum in New York, a city his company sees as its perfect fit: filled with people who do not own cars but still need them from time to time. Right now, the company calculates that half a million qualified drivers live within a five-minute walk from the 54 Zipcars scattered throughout the city and Hoboken.

But can Zipcar persuade New Yorkers to share them and be nice about it?

So far, about 2,000 people use the cars in New York, compared with 3,000 in Washington and 5,000 in Boston, where Zipcar was founded three years ago.

But some members say the nice part might take a little longer here.

"I was sort of looking forward to that community spirit," said Matt Mendelow, 33, a software engineer. "But it hasn't really worked out that well for me. I've frequently gotten a car that doesn't have any gas in it."

But Mr. Mendelow, who lives on the Upper West Side and joined Zipcar a little more than a year ago, said he plans to remain a member because he finds the cars convenient and is proud of being part of an idea that many cities would find strange. "In L.A.," he said, "this would be like heresy."

New York is also a tougher town for many other reasons. Insurance rates are higher. Zipcar does not park its cars on the street, as it can in many places in Boston and Washington. And often, New York garages, with their fortresslike systems, seem not to understand the concept at all.

Recently, this reporter wanted to take a Volkswagen Golf out in Brooklyn, and abided by the Web site's instructions to call the garage an hour before the reservation was to begin, a requirement that does tend to dampen the feeling of impulsiveness the company wants to convey. Still, the call was made.

No answer.

On second try, after several rings, a man picked up the phone. He was told that a customer was coming to pick up the Zipcar.

"The what?"


"Yeah, O.K., whatever."

The car did, however, turn out to be in the garage, and after a little lethargic shuffling, it was produced. (One early New York member, Chris Abramides from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, had a much worse garage problem the first time he tried to take out a car: he became embroiled in a phone argument about the company's unpaid parking bills. The company says that it has worked through those problems.)

For the reporter, a nice four-hour, 16-mile tool around Brooklyn cost $70.90, with tax, which might sound steep, but compare it with $144.20 for a 24-hour Saturday rental from Avis in Manhattan. (Avis has no Brooklyn locations.)

Unlike co-op apartment buildings, Zipcar is not exclusive in the least. Anyone who is over 21 with a license and a decent driving record can join. The membership fee is $30 a month, or $75 a year; rental rates vary from $8 to $16 an hour, plus mileage fees. There are daily rates for longer trips. Members reserve cars online and use an electronic card to get into the car, where the key is tethered near the ignition. The car will not start for someone without the card.

Also unlike co-ops, Zipcars do not involve contentious board meetings, though these are somewhat replicated by Web chats in which Zipcar members debate the finer points of car communality.

One burning question recently was "To snitch or not to snitch?" In a forum, one member reported having twice seen fellow members break the no-pets rule. But he added, "I am not sure I am comfortable with being a snitch." An official from the company reassured him that dropping a dime would not necessarily get another member in trouble.

But there are fines and charges for bad behavior, like returning late. As Mr. Griffith puts it, "If you break the rules of engagement, then there will be a little bit of pain."

But the company tries hard to find other ways to encourage thoughtfulness. For one thing, it has decided to give all its cars names, like Floyd, Consuelo and Billy-Bob, and trendier ones like Mojito and Manolo. Mr. Griffith said he thought this was kind of funny. But he added, "It also reinforces in an almost psychological way that it's something you should try to take care of."

The company also sponsors get-togethers, encouraging its members to relax, have a drink, get to know one another, maybe even become friends, in a way that it is hard to imagine regular Avis renters doing.

Many New York Zipcar members say they cannot quite imagine themselves doing so either.

"I must confess I have never been to one," said Mr. Mendelow, of the film nights and happy hours that the company puts together. "I'm not sure what I would discuss with the people when I got there."

Angeline Huang, a law student, said that she had never been to an event and that, though she plans to continue renting the cars, she remained somewhat confused about the concept. "It is a little weird," she said, only half jokingly. "Is it a company or is it a commune?"

http://graphics7.nytimes.com/images/2003/10/10/nyregion/10ZIP.1.jpg http://graphics7.nytimes.com/images/2003/10/09/nyregion/10zip.1841.jpg
A Zipcar, with tethered ignition key. Zipcar members share the car, and the responsibility for keeping it clean and the tank full.

Zipcar members can rent by the hour, and they use electronic cards to unlock the cars. The car will not start for someone without the card.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

October 11th, 2003, 12:36 PM
I used Zipcar for a few years until I recently purchased a car. This is a great service and keeps down the number of cars needed in an urban area like NYC. Some of the cars were hybrids using half electric and half gas. I never had a single complaint.