'Car-sharing' service on road to expansion

The Baltimore Sun

Margaret Deli strolled up to the Toyota Prius, swiped her membership card over the windshield sensor, opened the door and found the keys and a gas card in the glove compartment.

Within minutes the Johns Hopkins senior was on the road to Towson, returning three hours later to the university's Homewood campus in North Baltimore, where she parked the car in its 24-hour spot for the next driver.

The cost: $18.

"It's just so weird because I've never driven on campus before," said Deli, 21, an art history and English double-major from suburban Chicago.

Flexcar, a "car-sharing" service, entered the Baltimore market in March with four vehicles parked around the grounds of the Hopkins campus, available for short-term, low-cost rentals.

It has been so successful, the Seattle-based company plans to double its fleet there by mid-July. One of two national car-sharing companies, Flexcar has also signed a contract with the Parking Authority of Baltimore City to place about 30 rental cars at various spots downtown in the coming months.

"We're looking at all the neighborhoods in Baltimore," said Ralph Burns, Flexcar's general manager in the Washington region.

Burns said the Baltimore market could eventually handle 200 to 300 Flexcar vehicles. The company, which began in the Seattle area in 2000, has more than 300 cars in the District of Columbia and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, Burns said.

The District government is studying how to expand the city's number of car-sharing vehicles, which currently occupy 86 public parking places, said Erik Linden, a spokesman for the city's Transportation Department.

Though Linden said some residents were skeptical when car-sharing first came to Washington a year and a half ago, most people now call to request more cars and more spaces.

After launching car-sharing programs in Gainesville, Fla., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore this year, Flexcar now operates in 12 U.S. markets with close to 2,000 vehicles, company spokesman John Williams said.

Flexcar aims to reduce the number of cars on city streets and help urban dwellers avoid the hassle of renting a car and the expense of owning one by only paying for a vehicle when it is actually needed.

To attract new Flexcar members at Hopkins, the company is letting them use their initial $35 annual membership fee as a credit toward future rentals.

Cars are reserved online or by phone, sometimes just minutes before checkout if a vehicle is available. Members pay $6 an hour or $60 a day for a Flexcar. The fee covers the cost of insurance, maintenance and gasoline, which is purchased with the gas card kept in each car.

The cars must be returned to the same parking spot where they were checked out before the reserved block of time expires. Late fees, starting at $15, apply if a driver returns a vehicle after time is up.

If another member is waiting, Flexcar will switch them to another vehicle or pay for a taxi.

As businesses and government agencies look to downsize their fleet of vehicles, Flexcar officials said that sharing cars can be more cost-effective.

Flexcar plans to place its vehicles in permanent spots around Baltimore once the city's parking authority has identified businesses and agencies that can together commit to using the service 1,000 hours a month, according to Tiffany James, the authority's public relations director.

"This is a great way for government to save taxpayer money and use a more efficient way of getting government servants around to where they need to be," she said.

James said she plans to take the bus to work from her home in Hampden and use Flexcar whenever she needs to drive to meetings from downtown.

"We're trying to encourage residents to think of all the different options especially now that gas is climbing above $3 a gallon," she said. "There's [Flexcar], the light rail, subway, buses, you can bike, walk, use taxi cabs and the water taxi."

A year ago, the Baltimore City Council passed a nonbinding resolution to try to bring in a commercial car-sharing service. Then-Council President Sheila Dixon pushed for such a program, after sponsoring a hearing with Zipcar, Flexcar's rival in the emerging car-sharing market.

"Folks that work downtown or live downtown can really eliminate the number of cars we have parking downtown," Mayor Dixon said in a phone interview this week. "There's the potential for this all over the city."

Though she had expressed some skepticism after last year's Land Use and Transportation committee hearing on car-sharing, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the Flexcar program is thriving at Hopkins' Homewood campus, which is in her district.

"It's a great resource, plus we're hoping it will encourage students to leave their clunkers home and have a car when they need one but not park their own cars in a neighborhood for a semester," she said. "Parking is a major problem."

A recent Hopkins' graduate, George Telonis, 22, said he and his sister, Rina Telonis, 20, a Hopkins senior, frequently used Flexcar this spring until their extra family car could be brought down from Syracuse, N.Y. On several consecutive Sundays, George Telonis checked out the cars for 12 to 15 hours a day to transport equipment and people from Hopkins to Clipper Mill, where he was shooting a student film on location.

"It beats not having a car and having to do three trips instead of one," said Telonis, who still lives in Baltimore.

Usually, he said, he never had a problem checking out the car he wanted. But as the service grew more popular by the end of the school year, he had to book a car that was a further walk away.

In addition to Hopkins, Flexcar has vehicles parked on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park.

While Zipcar and Flexcar are for-profit companies, nonprofit car-sharing services exist in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, where the I-GO service has a partnership with Flexcar, said Williams, the company spokesman.

"They tend to be focused on one very specific region," Williams said of the nonprofit services.

With one-third of its fleet fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, Flexcar brands itself as a "green" company, allowing customers to pay an additional $10 a year to invest in clean energy projects to offset carbon emissions. Hopkins has requested to have all hybrid vehicles in its fleet: half Toyota Prius cars and half Honda Civic hybrids.

In comparison, hybrids make up 10 percent of Zipcar's overall fleet, according to company spokeswoman Michele Alvarez.

After three years of waiting for the campus shuttle and begging friends for rides, Deli finally has her own access to wheels that can get her around town. She first heard about the car-sharing program from her father, who signed up for I-GO in Chicago. She plans to use Flexcar again to run errands and maybe for a day trip.

"Now I want to go to the ocean," she said.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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