Zipcar: the new urban transport

I saw my first Zipcar on Saturday, as I pulled into the Trader Joe’s in Daly City. It instantly struck me as a brilliant service: a car you can borrow (that is, rent) quickly in urban areas for all those tasks you miss a car for: such as buying up groceries or other supplies, taking a short trip in the directions MUNI doesn’t serve well (i.e. going bowling in the Presidio without having to spend 2 hours riding and transferring between busses), and, yes, having an alternative to MUNI on those days when you just can’t stand it any more.

If Zipcar had been around when I lived in San Francisco, I would certainly have been their customer. As it was, the difficulty of finding parking was enough to make me eventually leave my car at Peter’s place in Santa Clara most of the time. But there was many a time I missed it, such as when I had to haul heavy groceries on and off the overcrowded tram that happened to run both past a Safeway and within 7 blocks of my apartment. Or on the days I considered checking out something in Pacific Heights or going to the beach, but looked at the MUNI schedule and decided it required near-impossible feats of timing and serendipity. Of course, biking was an option, but the conditions in San Francisco: inconsiderate (or unfamiliar) drivers, damp conditions and tortuous hills are the same conditions that forged the angry, traffic-terrorizing, window-smashing activist bikers of Critical Mass in the first place. So I was pretty much stuck in The Haight, which like most San Francisco attractions, is fun for a while, but not all the time.

Zipcar changes all that. As long as you’re a responsible driver, you can join up for the service, which gets you a “Zipcard.” Then, with your computer, you can rent any available car, usually a compact, but also a truck (i.e. for moving furniture) or station wagon (i.e. for transporting mountain bikes). Then you just go to the appointed car, wave your Zipcard in the window, and voila, you have a car! Zipcar pays for the gasoline (thanks to an included gas car), insurance, and maintenance. They clean it regularly (but not between every rental). It’s more analogous like borrowing a friends’ car (or a friend of a friends’ car) than a formal rental service.

There were 3 Zipcar lots within easy walking distance of my old address, and in lots I’d either have had to pay to park my car in, or where my car would have sat under threat of being towed. I asked the service what would happen if I found the car I’d reserved trashed by the former owner, or otherwise undriveable. Essentially, you just call the service about the problem, and they’ll resolve it, whether it’s by giving you another car, cancelling the rental without penalty, or reimbursing you for cleaning.

The one down side I saw to the Zipcar was that you can’t pick up a Zipcar in one location, and drop it off in a different Zipcar lot. So if you wanted to, say go to Santa Cruz for the weekend, you’d have to rent the Zipcar for all the time you’re there, instead of only for the time you need to use it. It’s a minor flaw: after all, you can still take the train and bus to Santa Cruz, and rent a bike (or a Zipcar) when you’re there, and Zipcar does need to keep its inventory under control. Price-wise, the Zipcar is roughly comparable to a rental car, though the Zipcar has the advantage of being able to be rented by the hour; for longer stretches of time, rental cars can be had cheaper, though it also means transporting oneself to the less-than-convenient rental car offices.

For my urban-dwelling friends, whether to get a car or not has always been a dilemma: the car will give them the mobility and travelling freedom they long for, but in a dense city, parking, crime, and insurance for said car are always a  serious drawback. I’ve seen a variety of compromises, from a couple I knew who would get a rental car for the weekend once a month, and do errands and day trips manically, and the afore hinted borrowing of a friends’ cars, which almost always ends in tears, or at least with parking tickets. Zipcar solves the problem with its car share.

I know I sound like a real cheerleader, but I believe Zipcar really makes urban living more feasible for more people. Who knows: San Jose is getting denser itself, and maybe my next car won’t be a hybrid, but rather a Zipcar.

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