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Car-Share: How to Keep Cars Off the Road and Even Break Our Destructive Consumption Habits

Innovative new car-sharing businesses are changing the way we think about driving--and owning cars.

We already know that cars are contributing to global warming, polluting the air, and hellish traffic jams in the world's biggest cities. We know that since the economy crashed in 2008, more and more people in the U.S. and around the world are struggling to pay bills, and we know that gas prices just keep rising.

Car ownership, it's becoming clear, simply isn't a sustainable way of life. But with an ongoing budget and revenue crisis on the federal, state and local levels, with conservative governors rejecting stimulus money for high-speed rail, it may be a while before we see the investment in public transit that it will take to fully break from the automobile.

Into the gap have stepped a number of innovative car-sharing companies and programs, allowing licensed drivers to pay fees less than traditional rental car companies and often access vehicles conveniently parked in their neighborhood. Each shared car, it's estimated, keeps an average of 15 cars off the road, allowing drivers to access a car only when it's specifically needed.

ZipCar, which calls itself “the world's leading car-sharing network,” has over 560,000 members in 60 cities and on 230 college campuses. Founded in 2000, ZipCar has over 8,000 cars, and options of over 30 makes and models.

To rent a Zipcar, you join at the  website and receive a “zipcard” in the mail or from its office. That card is all you need to unlock and start the car—sign up to reserve a car online or from a smartphone, and your card will be activated to use the car for that time period. Gas—a gas card is included with the car—and insurance are covered in your fee, which starts at $8.50 for an hour and $66 for the day. When you make your reservation, a map shows you where your car is parked, and you return it to its designated parking space when you're done.

Zipcar is less hassle than a traditional car rental, though its daily rates rival those of many big rental companies. Convenience is a factor, as is the fact that most car-sharers use the car for short trips on rare occasions—to go to the grocery store, perhaps, or the big box store on the edge of town.

Zipcar is a for-profit company, and turned heads with its initial public stock offering this past April, when it raised $174.3 million. It's not yet profitable, though, and hasn't maintained its stock price. (Henry Blodget at BusinessInsider is skeptical of the value of that 50 percent jump in stock price at the IPO.)

Zipcar isn't the only option. In Philadelphia, PhillyCarShare operates as a nonprofit. “We really see ourselves first and foremost as an environmental organization,” marketing manager Heather Nawoj told me, explaining that by being a nonprofit, PhillyCarShare can focus on its mission of making cars accessible to the entire city, rather than just where they can make the most money. Combining this strategy with a debit-billing system and lower prices than Zipcar, PhillyCarShare encourages its users to drive less, but makes driving accessible to many who otherwise wouldn't have a car at all.

A study by Econsult, a Philadelphia consulting firm, found not only that PhillyCarShare saved its members about 17 million miles of driving, 770,000 gallons of gasoline, 40,000 barrels of oil, saved the city an estimated 47,000 hours of traffic delay and saved the air 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants; it also saved each member an average of $2850, providing an increase of $13.2 million in purchasing power. If this holds true in other car-sharing cities, car-sharing programs are an economic stimulus all their own.

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