By Gordon Powers
The average annual cost of driving even a small car is now somewhere around $10,000, according to the Canadian Automobile Association. As a result, car ownership is making less and less sense to many people, especially those who live in the city and can bike or grab a bus. And yet, there are times when having a car – or at least access to one – is still a bit of a must. That's why more and more urban drivers are looking at car-sharing services that allow drivers to rent cars by the day, or even the hour.
Unlike a carpooling system, where a few people show up each morning and drive to work together, car sharing involves joining an organization that owns vehicles scattered throughout a city. Members pick up cars from various locations across town and return them to the same spot. You book online or by phone, pay an hourly rate to use the car, and then return it to its designated parking spot when finished. There are no worries about leasing, insurance, maintenance, or the price of gas. You've got to be organized though. The car must be returned within the reservation time or else somebody who's booked it after you might be left waiting. You can, however, extend things if there are no requests following yours.
Aside from saving some money, you're also making a green choice. Reducing the number of cars on the road eases congestion, frees up parking spaces and reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
Car-sharing drivers actually change their behaviour when they become members, advocates suggest. They're being charged by the hour, so they tend to group their trips together and they don't drive as much as they did before. Members also say they prefer such alternatives as opposed to traditional rent-a-car services because they don't need to line up, fill out forms or even have to make their way to a rental office.
Car sharing was pioneered in Europe about 20 years ago but the first Canadian provider was Quebec City's Communauto (http://www.communauto.com), established 13 years ago and now boasting about 10,000 members in Quebec, Montreal and other centres across the province. Currently, there are about a dozen cities in Canada with some kind of large-scale car-sharing organization. In smaller centres such as Victoria or Kitchener, most of these are co-ops, driven largely by those seeking to reduce their environmental footprint. In Toronto though, car sharing is becoming big business. Zipcar (www.zipcar.com), launched in Boston in 1999, now operates several thousand vehicles across North America, including Toronto over the past two years. Its biggest competitor there is AutoShare (www.autoshare.com), which has been up and running for about the same time – albeit without national exposure. Both have cars scattered throughout the downtown area and available around the clock. Once you sign up, Zipcar sends you an access card; from there, you use the Internet to reserve a car. On arrival, you wave the card at a card reader near the driver-side visor, which will unlock the car door. The keys are already inside. Each car also contains a debit card that you can use to top up the gas tank. After the rental, the company tallies your usage and sends you a bill.
Not quite as high tech, AutoShare members are provided with a special key that opens a lockbox in each lot where they park their cars. You'll find the ignition keys inside which you return to their respective box when you're through. You'll also be asked to enter your final odometer reading into a log book, which takes only seconds.
Pricing plans for car sharing vary tremendously, even within individual organizations. Most co-ops – and some for-profit firms – require an upfront deposit, which is refunded when the member leaves. And some charge a small membership. With the bigger for-profit firms, you choose from a variety of packages, depending on how much or how little you drive. Daily rates are available and are on par with car rental companies – unless you factor in the insurance that rental companies try to pitch as an extra. Hourly rates and distance charges vary sharply though. Quebec's Communauto, for instance, has annual dues of anywhere from $35 to $350 a year, depending on the package chosen, plus per-kilometre rates of between 16 and 29 cents. Hourly rates range from $1.55 on weekdays to $2.05 on weekends.
The annual fee for a basic plan is $55 at Zipcar and $35 for AutoShare. The per-kilometre and administration rates vary, depending on the amount of driving you do in a calendar month. Hourly rates at for-profits are higher than at the co-ops: around $10.50 at Zipcar, which includes 150 kilometres per 24-hour period, and closer to $9.50 on AutoShare's basic plan which charges by the kilometre. The per-kilometre charges from either company, however, are not as high as those you'll likely face at a co-op. AutoShare also offers non-peak rates from midnight to 7 am, a bonus for shift workers or night owls. While fee schedules and plans are all over the map, the actual cost differences aren't that significant. To put things in perspective, a 3.5 hour, 40- kilometre trip to Ikea is going to run you around 30 to 33 bucks, regardless of which of the two Toronto-based firms you use. Most of the vehicles available are general-purpose sedans or economy cars. Vans and specialty cars, when available, carry higher rates – generally $1 or $2 an hour. Both Zipcar and AutoShare have had clean-air Priuses in their fleets for awhile now and have been adding more of them as their businesses grow.