Gaining ground: The future of car sharing in the Motor City

Some might say it’s downright un-American, the idea of regularly sharing a car that’s not your own, with someone who’s not your immediate family. Others might say it’s just not Detroit, where car ownership has so long been a rite of passage.

Yet through a combination of technology and business savvy, the world’s most successful car share program, Zipcar, has found a strong market in Detroit. The company was founded near Boston, America’s cradle of independence, and now boasts membership heading towards one million, and a fleet of over 9,000 vehicles in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. 

Last fall, Zipcar launched at Wayne State University with two cars. Now less than a year later, there are two more vehicles. All are Ford products and have friendly names, like "Feisty," "Fernando" and "Frederika."  

True to Wayne State’s activist culture, it was a student campaign that pushed the university to adopt a car share program. Though Wayne State followed the University of Michigan and Michigan State University by a year or two, the program has been growing at a marked clip. Wayne State already has the same number of vehicles as MSU, and is looking to add more in coming months. With cars booked at least 40 percent of the time, the program meets Zipcar’s benchmark for expansion, 

"We’re always trying to give students more options to get around Detroit," says Jeremy Whiting, Wayne State’s Transportation Coordinator at the University’s Parking and Transportation Department, which manages the University’s Zipcar program, among other initiatives.

"We wanted to be responsive to the demand and car sharing ties into our efforts around sustainability," Whiting says, "But it’s not all we do." Whiting also points to other Wayne State programs like carpooling through SEMCOG’s website, the Midtown Connection shuttle service between DMC, Henry Ford and Wayne State, and the new, Zimride, a national program which matches drivers to riders and even tracks miles and CO2 saved in each transaction.

"Our Zimride program is very successful. Since it launched, it has the most matches per post of any school in the country," Whiting continues, "Though most pay for rides, money does not necessarily change hands." The driver and rider agree to the terms through the site, where users compare rides and view profiles and common friends through a Facebook interface.

Car sharing proponents point to stats that suggest every shared vehicle takes the place of 15 on the road. In 2009, car sharing amounted to an overall reduction in greenhouses gases by almost 500,000 tons of CO2. However, new research suggests that the reduction may not be as much as previously thought because the 560,000 Americans that car share represent only a tiny fraction of drivers (.27 percent), and the overall impact on CO2 emissions is miniscule.  Instead, they argue that car sharing benefits should eventually be measured by a reduced need for parking spaces, less traffic congestion, and lower overall travel expenses. An interactive infographic over at Future of Car Sharing expounds on these ideas.   

Car sharing is not a new concept; it’s been around in some form for more than 50 years, especially in countries like Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands. However, ineffective technology, poor systems, and weak management largely stifled these efforts. In more recent decades, the U.S. and Canada have gotten on board. The first programs in North America often utilized non-profit models or public-private partnerships with city government. 

Some of the more notable examples in the U.S., like Flexcar, in Seattle and Portland, and I-Go in Chicago, were started during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and became quite successful. Flexcar worked on a membership basis and coordinated with city government and transit authorities to target prime locations where car sharing had the best chance to work. After growing to become the second largest car share company in the U.S., in 2007, Flexcar merged operations with Zipcar.

I-Go was founded as a non-profit, with a mission to "reduce car ownership rates, decrease transportation costs, reduce urban congestion and improve air quality in Chicago." It is located in 30 Chicago neighborhoods, and also partners with government and institutions to coordinate a high level of service. There are about 12,000 members of the service, who have access to nearly two hundred vehicles in over two dozen models, including vans, trucks, hybrids and electric powered.

Now that these and other programs have gained real traction in the U.S., even major auto manufacturers are buying in. They see the market as an inevitable niche that consumers will fill. General Motors is investing in Relay Rides, a peer to peer car sharing program, which utilizes GM’s OnStar technology, and Ford has partnered with Zipcar as it expands its market share across the U.S. and abroad.

At the foundation of these programs’ recent success is technology. From reservations to payments to vehicle access and customer service, car sharing relies heavily on the relatively low overhead afforded by remote management. The dominant business model allows for thousands of vehicles to be accessed online and managed remotely from a few key locations.

Of course geography and proximity to a certain density of users is also key to any car sharing program’s success. Zipcar’s market, for example has largely been in denser coastal cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, as well as university towns, where students don’t necessarily need a car on a daily basis and cars can be centrally located and convenient for a large number of people. 

Unfortunately, those demographics never quite fit Detroit. Although there have been some stalled attempts at the non-profit model, like one called Motor City Car Share in the early 2000s, the city has been a bit behind the curve when it comes to car sharing. That appears to be changing now with the Wayne State Zipcar program. There are already over 300 users, both students and residents of the Midtown neighborhood, and the numbers keep ticking up. 

"It can get as big as it needs to be," Transit coordinator Whiting says, "A lot of people use the cars to run errands around the city and for 'pragmatic' purposes, grocery shopping, recycling, and doctor visits," though he adds that the cars are often reserved on Friday and Saturday nights as well. 

"We also have a lot of international students and grad students who need access to a car for specific reasons, for just a few hours, and then they need to get back on campus," he says. Whiting notes that Zipcar incentivizes short trips and being on time, since there are penalties for being late, and charges are by the hour. "On the other hand," Whiting says, "you can just log in and extend the reservation online if you need more time and the car is available."

Reserving a Zipcar through Wayne State is easy. Once you have an account and pay the annual membership fee of $25, you just log in online and enter the time you’d like to reserve the car. The site tells you which cars are available and when. After you have made your reservation, the car will be waiting for you in one of the specified lots and you then pay about $8/hour. The Zipcar’s mobile app even allows you to extend the ride, unless someone else has the car booked.

Wayne State’s costs to operate the program are relatively low. To help build awareness, they offer student discounts and market the service throughout its campus and dormitories, especially during student orientation, Earth Week, and Sustainability Week. Since those costs are covered as part of the University’s general marketing and outreach budgets, running the Zipcar program on campus is limited more or less to providing the vehicle parking spaces. 

In the future, Wayne State wants to encourage other area institutions to consider providing a car share service like Zipcar.  They’re even looking into starting a bike share program, an idea that together with car sharing, might just revolutionize community transportation in Detroit.

Francis Grunow writes about transportation for Model D.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Signup for Email Alerts