A woman parks a car in Federal Hill, and five minutes later, a man walks up to the vehicle, presses a card against the windshield, watches the doors unlock and hops inside.
Car sharing - already a reality in Washington and seven other major U.S. cities -could arrive in some Baltimore neighborhoods in as soon as three months, City Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday.
Dixon, who held a City Hall hearing on car sharing yesterday, hopes the program will solve some of the city's parking, traffic and pollution problems.
"It's an excellent way for people who don't want to buy a car to occasionally have access to one," Dixon said after the hearing. "When we go to community meetings, one of the biggest issues we hear about is parking and traffic congestion, and this will really help with that."
Members of the council's Land Use and Transportation committee heard from representatives with Zipcar, a short-term car rental company that has operated in Washington and five other cities since 2002.
Council members are considering replacing some cars in Baltimore's fleet with shared cars, as well as making the vehicles available to city residents.
Unlike traditional car rental companies, Zipcar - as well as competitors such as Flexcar - offer hourly rent for cars, stashing them in prearranged parking spots in residential neighborhoods.
After registering and passing background checks, drivers reserve nearby cars - choosing among a few dozen models that could include Mini Coopers, BMWs and Ford Escapes. At the arranged time, the driver is able to open the car doors and drive away. Maintenance, insurance and gas are covered by the rental company.
Shared cars are not meant to be a primary mode of transportation, and the costs - Zipcar estimates that its least-expensive vehicles would rent for $52 a day in Baltimore - make daily use impractical.
But they can supplement the transportation needs of people who normally rely on buses, light rail, subway and walking, said Gabe Klein, regional vice president for Zipcar.
"Each Zipcar takes 20 personally owned cars off the road," Klein said, emphasizing that his service can help decrease pollution as well as traffic congestion by enabling more people to rely on public transportation.
Council members and the chief operating officer of the Parking Authority of Baltimore City say that they are considering the feasibility of finding permanent parking spots for the shared cars. If they move forward, they say they would open the bidding process to all shared car companies. The council is eyeing Hampden, Fells Point, Federal Hill and Canton as the first neighborhoods to introduce shared cars, Dixon said.
Bringing the shared-car programs to Baltimore would involve a financial commitment by the city, Klein said. In his presentation, Klein proposed that the city create a promotion campaign for the cars, provide parking and pay the difference if Baltimore's Zipcars fall short of a monthly revenue goal of $1,500 per vehicle. John Williams, a spokesman with Flexcar, said that his company has made similar arrangements in other cities and would also like to move into the Baltimore market.
But Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she thought Zipcar's demands were excessive. "That's not necessarily what the city of Baltimore would or should do," Clarke said after the hearing. "That's the sales pitch."
She added that she would like to adapt Zipcar's monitoring system for the city's fleet to increase accountability, and that she thinks the shared-car model would be most successful on college campuses.