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The Zipcar Is Here

Car sharing takes hold in the Valley.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014
Stephanie Kraft photo

It’s a driver’s dream: a car you don’t have to own, insure, park every night, fill with gas at your own expense, or even clean. That’s the Zipcar, a car you can drive on an as-needed basis if you pay the fee, usually $6 a month but discounts abound, to sign up for the Cambridge, Mass.-based Zipcar program, then pay a daily or hourly rate for your time behind the wheel. The car’s home will be an accessible space in your town—often, though not necessarily, at a university or college. (In most cases, other community residents as well as faculty and students can join the Zipcar program at a local college.)

When you’re through with the car, you return it to its space; so far there’s no such thing as a one-way trip with Zipcar, though a pilot program to experiment with one-way journeys will go into operation in Boston this fall. You remove your belongings, including your trash, when you leave the car, but the serious cleaning is done by the company.

A card you can use to buy gas at no expense to yourself comes with the car, but you must leave the car with at least a quarter of a tank of fuel. Smoking is prohibited, and pets, except for service dogs, must be kept in locked carriers. Ticket? You pay it. Zipcar says that by and large, its customers are impeccable about observing the rules.

Zipcar and other car-sharing programs are most often thought of as an urban phenomenon, but Zipcar is rapidly catching on here in the Valley. Among the newcomers to the program is the city of Northampton, where Mayor David Narkewicz recently made the exuberant announcement that by fall the city will have two Zipcars, adding to the five at Smith College. “A car-sharing program was one of the items we identified several years ago, when we did our master plan,” he told the Advocate. “At that point, those programs weren’t focusing on smaller cities.”

Narkewicz said he sees Zipcar as a complement to the Amtrak train service that will be restored to Northampton next year. The car-sharing concept, he said, is expected to reduce congestion in a city where parking is sometimes in short supply, and induce residents to ask themselves whether they need to have a car to live in Northampton.

Not only Smith but all the Five Colleges— UMass, Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke— have Zipcars. UMass staff worked for years to get Zipcar, partly to save parking room and offer the school’s 22,000 students an alternative to bringing their own cars.

UMass had to wait for the end of a non-compete clause in a contract with a car rental firm that operated a car-sharing program on campus that was not very successful. It also had to negotiate with Zipcar, since at first the company wanted a guaranteed revenue figure that UMass could not provide, and was not willing to let people under 21 drive the cars. UMass won concessions on both scores, however, and last September, four Zipcars came to the campus.

“Zipcar was great in looking for our input about where they might be located,” said Rob Hendry, director of UMass’ Commuter Options Program. “There are two spots in Lot 71, near the Whitmore admistration building. That area sees a lot of foot traffic with students walking toward Southwest. Some we wanted to get onto the other end of the campus, and those are up near Totman Gym, in the northeast section.” Then, he said, Zipcar added a fifth vehicle because “they never want someone to come and not be able to get one.”

In the lower Valley, Springfield College has Zipcars, and Western New England State University will have them soon. So does the city of Holyoke. Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of planning and economic development, told the Advocate that he did not have figures on the use of the Zipcars, but he “notices the cars are being used.”

It was for economic reasons that the Zipcar program appealed to his office, Marrero said. “The Office of Planning and Economic Development had had a vehicle lease for many years,” he explained. “We have since given up the lease. We did the math. For the first year, the [Zipcar] membership is free for city employees, so we’ve set up a city account with Zipcar so the employees that would have been driving the leased car can now drive a Zipcar. Now we’re hoping to save money and do the city’s business in a better way. One is a Toyota Prius and one is a Ford Fiesta. They just seem like a win-win all the way around. Those models have better gas mileage.

“We’re always looking at ways to be efficient with taxpayer dollars,” Marrero added. “We become, in a way, an anchor tenant for a new business, and maybe they’ll do well and put in another car.”

To the north, in Franklin County and beyond, Zipcar is not yet a happening thing. “We actually explored it,” said Elizabeth Giannini, senior transportation planner for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “Greenfield was sort of the obvious place to look at. But we didn’t even meet the minimum for the population density they require, even with Greenfield Community College there. So we just didn’t really pursue it further.”

Patrick Morland, interim town manager in Brattleboro, told the Advocate, “It’s not even on the radar. We just haven’t heard any calls for it from the community.”

Zipcar and other car sharing programs would appear to be anathema to car manufacturers, because they offer an alternative to car ownership. In February, Forbes magazine quoted a study by Alix Partners, a multinational business advisory firm, that estimated that over the past 10 years, car sharing programs have cut sales of new cars by 500,000. Every new car that’s drafted into a car sharing program equals 32 automobiles not purchased by individual consumers, the analysts said.

But at least one automaker, Ford, decided a few years ago to join what it couldn’t lick, and went in in a big way for cooperation with Zipcar. Ford provided Zipcar with 1,000 Focus sedans and Escape SUVs and financed thousands of discounts on Zipcar memberships and driving hours for students. The reason, the company said, was to get the young people to try a Ford product that they might buy later on. Ford did well to read the handwriting on the wall: by next year, according to Avis, which bought Zipcar in 2013, Zipcar will have a million members in the U.S. and abroad.

To judge by the results of the program at UMass, at least, Zipcars appear to be in the Valley to stay. “They’re really being utilized,” said Hendry. “Zipcar is very pleased with the level of usage on campus here. A lot more of the young millennials don’t have cars and are getting around in more sustainable ways.” Zipcar wants college students to become accustomed to the program, he added, because the company believes that if it recruits students from large urban areas like Boston and New York as customers, they will use Zipcars when they go back to their home cities.

Not that Zipcar neglects other age groups; early in August, it partnered with the AARP to offer discounted memberships for seniors.•

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