Mood to Move: My great Zipcar vs. car2go experiment

columnist Cathy HastieColumnist Cathy Hastie writes about the touchstones of the low-car lifestyle in Portland – which also happens to be the largest U.S. city to offer more carsharing options than professional sports teams. Today and tomorrow on the blog, Cathy reports on a major project: To test the carsharing market leaders Zipcar and car2go against each other, and figure out whether they could ever be part of letting her family do without its own cars.

Here’s what she found, down to the penny and the minute – about carsharing and about herself.

My family drives an average of 12,000 miles a year. Driving relatively little is easy in our walkable, close-in neighborhood, but life without a car is still unfathomable to me. Those last-minute, mid-recipe trips to Fred Meyer; those evenings when I rush home from the office just to turn around and ferry my daughter to her band concert: they beg for the convenience and independence of a car.

But that doesn’t mean we have to own one. It turns out that my neighborhood, rich in transportation options, is also the Portland-center of the somewhat new concept of carsharing.

Mood to Move: low-car culture with PDX's Cathy HastieA few years ago, Zipcar vehicles started appearing in dedicated parking spots near my house. In 2012, I couldn’t help but notice a swarm of cute, miniature white and blue Car2Go vehicles parked on random neighborhood streets or passing me as I biked to work.

Their omnipresence piqued my curiosity. I asked myself, “What would life be like without owning a car?” This wet and blustery fall, I decided to find out.

I wanted to try both car-sharing services, so I marked out two weeks in November: one for ZipCar and the other for Car2Go.

This was the plan: I would continue to move around town as I normally did, biking to work and walking the girls to school. The only difference would be that any motorized transportation would be in a car-share vehicle. I would pretend to not own a car. The experience, I hoped, would temporarily replicate that of a life free of car ownership, with all the associated perks and frustrations.

a Zipcar in Portland's South WaterfrontMy intention was not to rate these services for the general public, although I hope they find value in my observations. My goal was to evaluate the two programs specifically in how well they satisfied my life’s transportation needs. Two weeks later, I felt smarter, more in touch with an ever-evolving society, but definitely older and more aware of my own stubborn resistance to change. I have to admit, I was a little relieved to revert to my spoiled, car-owning self. I understand just how lucky I am to live in my neighborhood and city.

In this installment and the next, I share my observations on my briefly car-free life for the benefit of other Portlanders who might be on the fence about buying or replacing a car. Are car-sharing services really cheaper than owning a car? How convenient could they possibly be? Do the vendors offer plans, vehicles and locations that fit my lifestyle, when and where I need them? What if I don’t own a smartphone? What if I have to haul four kids home from a muddy cross-country meet across town? These were some of my questions. Today and tomorrow, you will learn the answers to these and more.

Part 1: My week with Zipcar: Habits formed and not broken

As a wet-weather transportation experiment, I committed to using only Zipcars for any driving I did for one week in November. For seven days, I would ride my bike as I normally do, walk when I normally walk, but only drive a Zipcar when my transportation needs included a personal vehicle. This meant that friends could not pick me up, nor could my husband drive me anywhere. This meant that if I needed to haul a yard of bark chips, or help my friend move, if I needed to attend a three-hour cross country meet or visit my 99-year old grandma on her birthday, I would do it with a Zipcar. If I wanted to get somewhere during a storm, in the middle of the night or far away, I would have to plan for it — and pay for it!

In preparation, I signed up online for the “Wheel Deal” monthly plan – it seemed to make the most sense for my expected sporadic usage. At $24.99 per month, the idea of paying for something that I might or might not use was tough for me, but I took the salesperson’s advice and then immediately entered an Outlook calendar reminder to cancel it after the experiment was over. The per-hour rates were cheaper this way, and, luckily, I had a Chinook Book. Inside was a coupon for $75 of free driving credits. I was sure I wouldn’t get anywhere close to $75 worth of driving in one measly week, but welcomed the savings nevertheless.

My Driving Diary

Sunday: I reserved my first Zipcar. The process was simple enough. I logged on to the website and chose a location 3 blocks from my house. The available cars included a modest 4-door and a more expensive van. I selected the car, entered my pick-up and drop-off times and noted the estimated cost – $8.63 for my half-hour physical therapy appointment, plus an hour travel time. I gave myself plenty of cushion, it being my first time. Printing the reservation, as suggested on the website, was the hardest part due to my spotty home wireless connectivity and lack of ink in my printer.

Monday: I arrived at the car’s location ten minutes early. I slid my member card across the scanner at the front windshield and the car emitted a welcoming beep. I climbed in and was driving within seconds. There were no special buttons to push or codes to enter. I arrived at my appointment early. Afterwards, as I was preparing to return home, Zipcar sent me a text letting me know that I could pay for extra time if if I needed it. (Thanks, Zipcar.) But I was on time, something I am even more vigilant about when the late fine is $50! I parked, got out of the car and slid my card across the scanner again to end the reservation. First usage complete!

  • Getting used to it: The previous driver was much shorter than I. I know it is a petty complaint, but it sucks to have to adjust mirrors and seats while driving in the rain at night.

Tuesday: I attend a Spanish class across town Tuesday nights. It seems a shame to pay for not only my ride to class, but also the two hours the car sits in the parking lot. But taking the bus or biking would take too long on a dark November night, and my eldest daughter had decided to join me this time. I needed to maintain flexibility, given her packed schedule, which meant added time to my reservation. I left early to pick her up from her track workout, increasing the cost by a few dollars, and then we stopped for dinner between track and class. Again, I paid for the privilege of a guaranteed ride home. After all was said and done, the evening’s transportation costs added up to $11.52.

  • Combining errands: I asked myself if it was worth the extra few bucks to make extra stops and consolidate trips. Should I wait and make a separate trip by bicycle, when it would be “free”? I found myself sighing wistfully as I passed by Fred Meyers that night on the way home. Was I secretly waiting until I had the use of my own car again?

Friday: I made a reservation Thursday at work and had to guess at how long I would want the car. I had an afternoon meeting with a friend, but I could bike to that. My family had signed up to volunteer at a fundraiser for the high school ski team in the evening, and my husband and I had a tentative date-night across town. I wasn’t sure if our date was written in pencil or pen, so booking the car forced us to solidify our plans. The busy day’s driving cost me $20.30!

  • Lost and found: When I returned the Zipcar that night, I accidentally left a pair of skis in the trunk. When I realized my mistake, I called Zipcar. Luckily, I had three hours to go retrieve them without incurring any charge. My husband, however, once left something in a Zipcar and had to pay to access the car the next day to pick up his parcel! (Editor’s note: Zipcar’s Portland office says both Cathy and her husband were misinformed: If you leave items in a Zipcar, you can retrieve them for free by reserving the Zipcar, opening it without turning on the ignition, retrieving the items and then canceling the reservation within 30 minutes of booking it. Zipcar also maintains an online lost and found forum.) Users are also responsible for parking meters and tickets.

Saturday: I waited until the last minute to make a reservation for another fundraiser we were attending. I searched for a car for a 5:30 pm departure, and found that the closest was more than a half mile away. I was bummed. But I rethought it and changed the start time. The neighborhood car would be returned at 6 and was available! Hallelujah! We walked to the parking lot and waited. The earlier users returned the car exactly at 6 pm. It worked out nicely after all.

Sunday: By the end of the week, the reservation and pick-up routines were rote. My Sunday afternoon reservation to go see a movie with a girlfriend was pleasantly uneventful. Isn’t there a saying: if you do something for seven days, it becomes a habit?

  • Disincentive to have fun: That irksome pay-as-you-go mentality hung over my head as I tried to enjoy myself that night. The cost of the movie, without popcorn or soda, was $10. Add the car and the total more than tripled to $35.38. With entertainment “prices” like these, I might become a hermit!

The Bottom Line

During my seven-day experiment, I used 18 hours of vehicle time, drove approximately 48.2 miles on five separate reservations and incurred $122.65 in charges (which includes the monthly fee, but not the application fee or the discount for my coupon). That works out to $6.81 per hour, $2.54 per mile, $24.53 per trip or $17.52 per day.

In comparison, a monthly TriMet pass costs $100. Riding my 10-year old bike is practically free. Walking is definitely free. Calculating the cost of owning my two unfashionable cars is less straightforward. Zipcar assumes car ownership is based on a loan, with interest. They estimate the monthly cost, which includes insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs, to be $807. I have always bought my cars for cash, so the formula that models my situation replaces the loan and interest with the cost of the car divided by its likely lifespan. My actual monthly cost for two cars, both significantly shabbier than the car Zipcar uses as an example, is about $384. If I were to use Zipcar exclusively at the same rate I used it for my experimental week, I would spend about $415 on my current plan. Zipcar offers other plans. They estimate the cost for those who “drive a lot” is $309 per month, “a fair amount” $144 per month, and “not much” $32 per month.

Not unlike the American Automobile Association, many middle-class Americans, and my mother, Zipcar makes assumptions about what kind of a car people should drive. But for a subset of Americans, me included, cars are not thrones but convenience-enhancers. I believe they should be safe, clean and well-maintained, but driven until they puke engine parts. My standards don’t fit the image sold by commercial entities, and so their estimates are hard to take seriously in my reality.

What I Learned

  • I drive more than I thought I did. According to Zipcar, I drive “a lot”! I may not drive far or long, but it turned out that I do start up that engine often enough.
  • Owning a car is like having health insurance. You pay every month for the security and assurance of having it when you need it. Because I live very close to the places I find important to visit (family, grocery store, school, coffee shops), my “transportation insurance” (aka 1998 Honda Civic) ends up having both a low “premium” (monthly cost of unsexy car) and a low “copay” (per-usage cost).
  • Multiple passengers made me feel better about Zipcar’s value. The comparison between one bus ticket and four tilted the scale for convenience and price.
  • Renting a car by the hour made me plan further in advance. I was also less likely to make spur-of-the-moment changes, like stopping for a coffee or taking the long way home. In fact, the urgency I felt in returning the car “on time” cut short a few conversations – I felt less inclined to shoot the bull with the receptionist at my PT appointment, or get to know my fellow students after Spanish class. When I am paying per hour, I am much more aware of the value of my time — because it no longer belongs to me.

Coming Friday: Cathy’s report on car2go, the very different service she describes as (for good and ill) “like a teenager’s dream date: spontaneous, fecund and curfew-free.” Don’t miss it.

Cathy Hastie is a Portland-based writer and civil engineering project manager. She also blogs on her own site, Portlandcentric.

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