Zipcars bring pay-by-the-hour motoring to the Motor City

The car-free life got a little easier in Detroit this fall as Zipcar, the nation’s largest car-sharing service, expanded its offerings beyond the campuses of Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies to multiple locations across the city.

As of September, over 40 Zipcars are now available in neighborhoods including Woodbridge, New Center, Midtown, Greektown, Downtown, and Corktown, in addition to WSU and CCS campuses and City Airport.

Zipcar members can reserve the cars on a first-come, first-serve basis at a rate ranging from $8 to $12 per hour. Membership is open to anyone over the age of 21 with a clean driving record (members at participating colleges can join at age 18). The cars are parked in garages and lots across the city, and can be reserved on the Zipcar website or by using a smartphone app. Users are responsible for maintaining cleanliness, returning the car on time and filling the tank using a gas card found in the car.

Zipcar got its start in Cambridge, Mass. in 1999, and now operates car-sharing networks across the U.S., Canada and Europe. The company went public in 2011 and was acquired by Avis Budget Group in March of 2013.

The cars first came to Detroit by way of WSU’s Department of Parking and Transportation in 2011, as part of the ZipcarU program. Zipcar often looks to universities first when establishing a presence in a new territory, according to Michael Serafino, VP of marketing, development and sales for Zipcar.

"We were blown away with the uptake at WSU," says Serafino. "We started with two cars and it quickly grew to six cars, which is atypical for our university projects, so we knew we had something in Detroit."

Jeremy Whiting, transportation coordinator for WSU, says the program has run smoothly from the start. "We’ve just had some routine stuff like minor accidents and maintenance issues," he says.

The success of the WSU program prompted university officials to reach out across Woodward to help establish a Zipcar program on the CCS campus.

"It's a way WSU is trying to make it more possible to live downtown without a car," says Whiting.

Regina Sharma is assistant director for corporate philanthropy at WSU and a resident of Grand Circus Park. She loves the walkable lifestyle of her neighborhood and counts herself lucky to live and work in the city, relying on public transportation to get to and from work. Her job, however, frequently requires her to visit companies across the region, so she had always maintained a personal vehicle for those weekday trips.

About a month ago, Sharma started using Zipcars for her work trips. As a result, she and her husband divested themselves of her car and now share one car between them, which her husband uses to travel to his job in the suburbs.

"I'm now completely carless,” says Sharma. "If you look at car payments, insurance, and gas, compared to paying an hourly rate for a vehicle and only using it for the interval you need it, the cost savings are dramatic."

According to AAA, the costs of owning a car are on the rise, with a 1.96 percent year-over-year increase in 2013; 2012 and 2011 saw similar increases. Owning a car is particularly expensive in urban areas, where insurance costs, fuel costs, and parking costs are typically higher.

So far, Sharma has not encountered a problem with reservations. She is able to schedule her appointments far enough in advance so that she is always able to find an available Zipcar.

At the reserved time, the member locates the car, swipes a Zipcard against a panel on the windshield, and the car opens. Keys are inside and tethered to the dashboard. A mobile phone app can also lock and unlock the car and honk the horn. Zipcar insures all vehicles for collision and liability with a $750 member-paid deductible. The cars are serviced on a regular basis. If the previous user is late returning the car for the next user’s appointment, Zipcar will pay cab fare to and from the member's destination. The website claims members are late only 2 percent of the time.

"It's a pretty simple process," says Sharma. "Even though I am fortunate to have a walkable lifestyle, I was still using my vehicle more than I absolutely had to, so this is a really convenient option. I would encourage people to consider using Zipcars as an alternate form of transportation."

Zipcar is now in the process of establishing a Detroit office and relationships with Detroit vendors, according to Serafino. The available Zipcars currently include Dodge Caravans, Ford Escapes, Focuses, Mustangs and Sedans, Audi A3s and A4s and Cooper MINIs.

Zipcar made the jump from college campuses to the rest of the city after being approached by Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures to pilot a program for their employees. The success of that program combined with the success of the WSU and CCS programs made an expansion in Detroit very attractive, says Serafino.

"The combination of the rebirth of a city, a very successful university program, and the business interest coming together made it clear that this was going to be a great opportunity," he says.

Nina Ignaczak is Model D's transportation project editor.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Nina Ignaczak.

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and the editor of Metromode. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.
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