When Baltimore crossing guard supervisors make their rounds, they're apt to be driving cars emblazoned not with the familiar city seal but with a "Z" — for Zipcar, the vehicle-sharing service that allows members to rent cars by the hour for short trips.
The supervisors are among two dozen Transportation Department employees who use the nationwide service that launched in Baltimore in 2010. To date, the agency says it has spent $63,000 on Zipcar use.
"This gives us an alternative way to get people where they need to be for work purposes," said Billy Hwang, the city's deputy transportation director. He said that with weekday business rates starting under $8 an hour, the service is cheaper than assigning a fleet vehicle or paying mileage for employees using their own cars.
"As a matter of public policy it's the way this department ought to be thinking of transportation and taking a lead — cleaner, greener alternatives that help to mitigate traffic," he said.
Although officials have yet to analyze the overall economic effect of using Zipcar, environmental advocate Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1000 Friends of Maryland praised the agency for taking a step to reduce its reliance on government-owned cars.
"It shows a different way of looking at something we take for granted: 'Oh, every agency has to have a fleet of this number,' " she said. "This makes such a statement that we're looking at creative ways to move people.
"Seeing a city agency doing good and being smart — this is great," she said. "This is marvelous."
The idea does not appear to have taken hold throughout city government. Employees at several agencies use Zipcar, according to the city, including the Parking Authority and the planning, police and general services departments. In some cases, the company offers discounted rates for employees of municipal departments as a perk.
But some large agencies such as housing and public works say they haven't reimbursed employees for any Zipcar trips.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said there has not been a citywide push to encourage agencies to use Zipcar. But the mayor's 10-year plan envisions cutting the number of municipal vehicles by 5 percent and modernizing the fleet with more fuel-efficient vehicles through a "sustainable" lease-financing approach.
Zipcar officials say their company has helped governments in Washington, Chicago, Boston and Houston make changes that have saved money and improved fleet efficiency.
In Baltimore, Zipcar has about 200 cars at more than 60 locations, including several downtown. In addition to some city agencies, organizations that participate in the Zipcar for Business program include Under Armour, the Johns Hopkins University and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Each business pays a one-time $75 account setup fee, and each driver pays $25 a year. During the week, hourly rates start at $7.75, which covers gas, insurance and up to 180 miles of driving a day.
Parking Authority spokeswoman Tiffany James said Zipcar has allowed her family to drop to one car. She takes light rail to work and if she needs to go to a community meeting that's not within walking distance of her office, she goes by Zipcar.
James sees multiple benefits: "It helps me reduce parking demand downtown. It helps me save money. It helps the Parking Authority not have to purchase more fleet vehicles."
She said the authority, which offered to help introduce Zipcar to city agencies, keeps close watch of employees' use of the cars by requiring that every trip be approved by the finance director.
At the Transportation Department, the 22 Zipcar members include parking control agent supervisors and community liaisons, as well as crossing guard supervisors, whose job involves checking on school crossing guards around the city.
Hwang said he'd also like to see agency employees take part in a truly clean and green approach to getting around town: a bike-sharing program that's scheduled to debut in Baltimore next spring.