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Car-sharing: wheels at will, and lower bill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are few similarities in the lives of Alan Turnbull and Hazel Parent. He's a young professional, a city councilman in Greenbelt and the father of two small children. She's a 62-year-old widow whose days are spent making pottery at her public housing apartment and tending to her aging terrier, Charlee.

About the only thing they have in common is the "Zipcar" they share, a sparkling white 2002 Volkswagen Jetta parked a short walk from both of their homes.

In greater Washington, as in Boston, Seattle, New York - and, perhaps, Baltimore soon - car-sharing programs are catching on, creating a potentially significant transportation link.

For a cross section of motorists - from residents of apartment complexes to budget-conscious college students, from rail passengers who need a vehicle at the end of the line to employers who want an economical fleet of company cars - membership means a simple, paperless way of paying for a car only when one is needed.

With a reservation and the swipe of a membership card, the car door unlocks and members are mobile. The fee - in Washington, $6 to $9 an hour - includes gas and insurance.

Turnbull and his wife found the system so convenient they got rid of their second car. "I figure we're saving $3,000 a year easily between operation, fuel, oil, depreciation and insurance," Turnbull said. "It's a real cheap way to have backup transportation."

Parent - who had feared driving her 20-year-old Ford more than a few miles from home and couldn't afford to replace it - said she is suddenly liberated.

"I've kind of got a life again," said Parent, who has begun dreaming of day trips to the Inner Harbor.

Typically, members pay a sign-up fee of $25 to $30. Cars are kept at high-density spots such as apartment complexes, university campuses and transit stops. A vehicle can be reserved online on a few minutes' notice, and members can choose any car in their network nationwide. When done, they return the car to its designated parking spot.

Presidents of the nation's two largest car-sharing companies - Boston-based Zipcar and Seattle-based Flexcar - say they started their businesses after observing the success of similar companies in Europe, where car-sharing has long been in place.

"It was such a cool thing, I asked myself, 'Why aren't we doing this?'" said Neil Petersen, head of 3-year-old Flexcar and a former transit executive in Seattle and Los Angeles. "It stuck in the back of my mind."

'The perfect solution'

On the other side of the country, Robin Chase was confronting transportation headaches in Boston.

"We are a family of five living in an urban area, and my husband took the car to commute to work every single day, leaving me carless with three kids," she recalled. The expense and hassle of parking, maintenance and insurance made her reluctant to buy a second car.

Then she learned about European car-sharing. "It spoke to me - this was the perfect solution," said Chase, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

Two years ago, she started Zipcar with three vehicles. The company has expanded to Washington, New York and Denver, with 2,500 members and a growing fleet that will number 250 cars by the end of the year.

Zipcar officials have begun exploring other cities, including Baltimore, and have contacted the University of Maryland and city officials about collaborating to provide the parking spaces. They have no timetable for when the service might be offered in this area.

Perhaps contributing to the interest in car-sharing are two important facts about American motorists: The average American uses a car a total of one hour a day - and spends 25 percent of his or her income on it, car-sharing groups say.

Formal car-sharing can provide an economical option. And when paired with mass transit, it can be environmentally helpful by reducing the number of cars on the road.

"I think this will be a ubiquitous service in cities within five years," Chase said. In the 1-square-mile city of Cambridge, Mass., Zipcar operates 25 cars. "But this city could take hundreds of cars. Eventually I think there'll be one on every block."

Penny Cherubino decided to sign up last summer. A marketing research consultant who lives in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, she worried whether a car would be available when she needed one, particularly for emergency visits to her ailing mother-in-law.

Her concerns have proved to be unfounded. Four cars are within a four-block area of her home.

"I've always been able to find a car - even on Labor Day weekend," she said. "There are probably seven different cars that I use regularly" - among them, a Toyota Prius hybrid that runs on gasoline and electricity, and a Volkswagen Beetle.

"My husband really loves cars, and one of the benefits is he gets to drive these different cars," she said.

The couple have sold their Saab, their only car, which was costing them $10,000 a year in parking, maintenance and other expenses.

Susan Shaheen, director of a transportation research program at the University of California, Berkeley, said the first wave of members are people such as Cherubino, who are quick to understand how to make car-sharing work for them.

And while some companies, such as Flexcar, have concentrated on placing cars near transit stops, and others, such as Zipcar, have focused more on neighborhoods, the best model seems to be a combination of the two, Shaheen said.

In Switzerland, more than 50,000 people share cars that are in neighborhoods and transit centers as well as at airports, resorts, businesses and hotels.

"The Swiss, who have really mastered this, are making a lot of money," Shaheen said. "They've actually proven this can work in rural areas as well.

"I think in the U.S. we're likely to see the same kinds of patterns. But success in this country is going to come down to education."

Spreading the word

Parent is trying to spread the word among her neighbors at the Green Ridge Apartments, which has limited parking. The city of Greenbelt, which operates the building, has agreed to pay the hourly rental fee for building residents, hoping some will give up their cars and ease the parking problems.

In addition to the Jetta, which has a designated spot just outside the building, Zipcar has parked a green VW Beetle at the nearby municipal complex.

But meetings to hear about the program have been sparsely attended, and only a few people have signed up. That makes Parent nervous. She wants the program to succeed.

"A good thing like this, my goodness, can it last?" she asked, heading out one recent morning to the Jetta. "It's really a wonderful thing."

On Zipcar's Web site, she has reserved the car for a couple of hours, and Zipcar computers know to allow access only to her during that period.

Stepping up to the driver's side, she waves her membership card's magnetic strip in front of a transponder under the wind- shield, and the locks lift open. She finds the car key in its hidden spot. If she needs gas, a Zipcar credit card is available. The company takes care of all maintenance and cleaning, but should the car need a wash, Parent can leave the receipt in the glove box, and she'll be reimbursed.

With her old Ford, she tried to limit her errands to the shopping center a few blocks away. "At my age, I don't want to be broke down in traffic," she said.

On her first trip in the Zipcar, she went to the more distant Beltway Plaza and signed up for a bonus card at a grocery store. The options for her there are more enticing: an oversized pet store for Charlee, a Dollar Store for small gifts for her grandchildren.

After a few short drives, she took the car out recently for the 11-mile trip to the cemetery where her parents and husband are buried. It's a place she had been unable to visit for more than five years.

"I think I'm going to start venturing out a little farther," she said.

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