Sunday 3 October 2010

ZipCars: I've seen the future, and it works.

I am now officially a "Zipster". I have just completed my very first go at a Zipcar, an almost brand new Mini Cooper with just 15 thousand K, thank you very much. As I write this, I have to say that this initial experience was quite favourable. Convenience is at the top of my list and this car rental service managed to come through with flying colours in the area of ease of use so I am going to already call myself a convert.

My wife and I moved from the suburbs to the downtown core, from a house to a condo apartment several years ago. The first thing we noticed was that I started to take transit, no more driving to work. Daughter number one got a new job which required her to drive so we signed over one of our two cars to her.

Slightly over 2 years ago, my wife retired and as a consequence, her need to have a car on a daily basis dropped precipitously. We talked it over and did a little research. According to the CAA, the annual cost of car which will depend on the type of car and the number of kilometres one drives, will vary from eight to ten thousand dollars. Considering we were not driving every day, in fact some weeks we didn't touch the car at all, we began to speculate on just how many taxis and rental cars we could have for eight to ten thousand dollars.

In August 2010, we sold our car. Right now we are carless; we have taken the plunge and we are going to see if we can actually live without our very own vehicle. Believe me, as I sit here writing this, there's part of me that thinks we're completely nuts. Who doesn't have a car? Nevertheless, I have heard stories for years about people living in the big city who only rented a car occasionally when they needed to go out of town. Hmmm, eight thousand dollars would rent a lot of cars.

The Suburbs
Let me point out something very important in the making of our decision. We are living right smack in the middle of the downtown core. We have access to tons of transit. I walk just a few blocks to get to the subway and at the other end, the subway goes directly into the building where I work. If we want milk, we only have to go next door to Shopper's Drug Mart. If we want groceries, there are many choices within walking distance. We can walk to the Eaton's Centre, the Scotia Bank cinema and a host of bars, restaurants, theatres and clubs.

But and here's a big but, we fully recognize that there is no way we could have considered getting rid of our car if we were back living where we were in the suburbs. Nothing was close; we had to drive everywhere and while there was transit, it certainly was not as convenient or as frequent as it is downtown. It is only because we made the move to a condo apartment in the heart of the city that we were able to possibly consider this as feasible.

We take the plunge
One thing we certainly mulled over is the handiness of going to our own car and just driving away whenever we wanted. What convenience! However, we felt that with a little planning, we could manage this transition to not owning a car at all. After all, downtown a car is ofttimes a liability. Travelling during gridlock is a nightmare and finding a parking spot can be problematic as well as expensive. Being on foot, taking transit can translate into the more convenient way of getting around. Besides, it just may be more healthy for us.

Back to Zipcars
Zipcar is a for-profit, membership-based car sharing company providing automobile rental to its members, billable by the hour or day. Founded in 2000 by 2 Americans, the company has grown and now offers cars in 49 cities in the U.S., Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and London England.

The idea is simple: become a member and get a "Zipcard". Reserve a car via the Internet then go to one of the parking lots scattered throughout the city. Wave the Zipcard in front of a reader on the windshield to unlock the doors then drive away. The cost of the rental covers insurance and gas; you merely pay an hourly fee.

Keep mind one thing: You are driving a car which has "Zipcar" painted on the doors. Good? Bad? I note that Budget doesn't have "Budget" plastered on the side of their vehicles.

My first time
It was an easy as that. I reserved a Mini Cooper as a lark since I had never driven one. The weekend rate was a couple of dollars higher and the cost of the Mini Cooper was a couple of dollars higher than other small models available. What the heck, we gotta have a little fun, right?

In the end, the final tally for my 2 hour jaunt in the Mini Cooper was $30.51. Ah, I can hear you say, what about renting from one of the major car rental companies? I agree. You have to play this by ear. Depending on how long you need a car and how far you are going, you do have to juggle the alternatives. Zipcar gives you an allowance of 200 km per day. Obviously if you need to go further, Budget may be a better deal. But don't forget, with Zipcar, you get your gas while with Budget you have to pay for your own gas.

My assessment of all this is that if you need an hour or two, for grocery shopping or a quick visit someplace, Zipcar is probably the best deal. If you want to go out of town for the day, you had better go with a regular car rental agency like Budget.

In any case, coming back to the CAA's report on the cost of owning a car, I think we will be able to rent a lot of cars at either Zipcar or Budget plus take a few cabs and not quite exhaust the eight thousand dollar it was potentially costing us to own our own vehicle. For the most part, we will continue on foot for the majority of my transit needs supplemented by the subway, street cars and buses. However with a Zipcar lot just next door, with Budget just a few blocks away, we can still have the best of both worlds with the freedom to drive a car, just temporarily ours when and where we want it but have the convenience of somebody else having to worry about the maintenance.

I am going to try and keep track of this and see just how far ahead we are at the end of 6 months or a year. I realize this is all theoretical at the moment but it certainly seems like it was a good idea to sell our car. Only time will tell it we are financially ahead as we "zip" into our new carless future.

The title of this article
As an interesting little meander, I decided to look up this saying. I quote from Wikipedia:

Joseph Lincoln Steffens (April 6, 1866 – August 9, 1936) was an American journalist, lecturer, and political philosopher, and one of the most famous practitioners of the journalistic style called muckraking. He is also known for his 1921 statement, upon his return from the Soviet Union: "I have been over into the future, and it works." (Usually reprinted as "I've seen the future, and it works".)

The Italian Job
After having rented a Mini Cooper, there seemed to be no way I couldn't at least try to fit in a reference to the Italian Job.

First of all, I find it curious how I'm more careful with an automobile I'm not quite familiar with. There I was driving the speed limit, not taking any chances, biding my time and taking it easy. If I had been driving my own car, I would have been pulling out to pass more often and exceeding the speed limit but reasonably of course.

I refer now to the film The Italian Job, both the original, the 1969 caper film starring Michael Caine and the 2003 remake starring Mark Wahlberg. Both films made use of Mini Coopers as the getaway cars and both made use of the sewer system as a getaway route.

I can't say that the next time I rent a Mini Cooper I'll be attempting any fancy pants stunt driving like in these films but at least I can feel a slight twinge of excitement knowing I'm behind the wheel of a famous getaway car.

In idly surfing the Net, I ran across 2 issues which merit further investigation.

The liability insurance offered by Zipcar may be weak. I have supplemental liability insurance on my credit card and always use it instead of taking what's offered by the major companies such as Budget. I'm assuming that works with Zipcar but what's important is whether or not you have extra coverage on your own credit card or elsewhere.

Nobody checks the car for damages when you return it. You just park it yourself in the unattended Zipcar lot. I read a blog where somebody was held responsible for something they didn't do but he had no way of proving it so it came down to his word against the company's word. While I wouldn't think this to normally be a issue, after I park the car it could be a target for vandals or somebody else's poor driving skills.

I'll look into this but regardless, this first experience was a good one.


Wikipedia: Zipcar

official site: Zipcar: About

my blog: Do I need a car?

CAA (Canadian Automobile Association): Driving Costs - 2009 Edition


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