Zipping Around

I talked earlier this week about giving up on car ownership because of the cost.  It was a really hard decision, that I did not take lightly.  I knew that no matter how easy it became to run to the grocery store down the street for a few things every couple of days, I would still need to, you know, buy toilet paper more than one roll at a time.  My mother, ever helpful, suggested I use my rolling suitcase or get one of those folding grandma carts to make my grocery run.  I replied that I don’t particularly care to look homeless, thanks.

I had heard, vaguely about car sharing, but I didn’t really know anything about it, and expected it to be prohibitively expensive.  But when it came time to hand over the keys, I started doing some research on the car sharing concept.  I was happy to find out that the expense was not what I expected.  There were two car sharing services operating in Portland at the time that I selected one, Zipcar and Cars2Go.

Let me explain car sharing really quickly for those of you who have never heard of it.  The car sharing company owns a fleet of vehicles which are parked in designated locations around the city they’re operating in.  Members have an access device of some kind (usually a card or keyfob with an embedded RF ID chip in them) and vehicles are equipped with a chip reader that allows members access to the vehicle.  Typically the members are billed on a by the hour or by the day basis, depending on how long they use the vehicle, and the car service takes care of the usual costs associated with owning and maintaining the car.  I assume the vehicle has a way of communicating with the company to report distance driven, location, and other information.  Membership is typically month to month, and members are required to keep a valid credit or debit card on file for the charges involved.

I found that Cars2Go didn’t offer any vehicles in the western end of the city where I live.  (I’m closer to Hillsboro/Beaverton city lines than I am to Portland it’s self).  So that was a definite negative for me, I’d have to take the train into Portland each time I wanted to use a car.  They also only offered the tiny Smart ForTwo in my city.  I had several concerns about this in particular.  I sometimes want to go and visit my family, which is about 100 miles from my home.  These little Smart cars only have a range of about 80 miles on a full charge…so for that trip I would have to stop and charge the car both on the drive down and on the drive back in order to get there.  Inconvenient.  In addition, I’m a fat chick, and these cars look TINY.  I may find my way to a dealership to try sitting in one, but I’m not optimistic.  The cars offered really just don’t fit what I’m looking for when I use a car.  I want to be able to travel a long distance.  I want to be able to carry a lot of groceries.  I want to be able to put my bike in the back and take it for repairs or whatever.  I want to be able to load up several friends for a night out.  The Smart car just doesn’t fit that bill.

The other option was Zipcar.  There are a variety of different makes and models available, so I can get a SUV if I want to go camping for the weekend, or I can get a Mazda 3 if I’m just running errands around town.  I also like that with Zipcar I get to try out several types of cars, so that in a year or two when I’m ready to purchase a car again, I can go in knowing what works for me and what doesn’t.  I’ve already decided that I have no interest in driving a Honda Civic or Nissan Sentra.  Neither of these cars are comfortable for me to drive, no matter how I adjust the seats or steering wheel.  I’m in love with the Mazda 3.  It’s a small car, but the 5 door model (hatchback) has plenty of space where it counts and is genuinely comfortable for me to drive.  Bicycles fit in the back easily with the front wheel removed and the back seat laid down.  Cost wise, Zipcar was more affordable than I was expecting.  There’s a $25 application fee (they do check your driving record, mine was clean for the last 3 years, so no issues for me there), and then you select a baseline monthly membership based on how much you think you’ll use the car.  Personally I have the $50 monthly plan.  I commit to pay $50 each month, and in return I get $50 in driving credit each month… so it’s not like I’m paying a membership fee on top of driving time each month.  For the cars I get, that’s about 6 hours of driving time each month.  In months where I’ve got more planned than that, I can simply pay the extra for other times I want to use the cars.

So let’s say that on September 2nd I want to do my big grocery shopping trip for the month.  I know I need the car for 4 hours for that.  The Mazda 3 that I like is $9.68/hour, so the shopping trip would cost me $38.72.  Since I’ve got the $50 membership, that first $38.72 would be subtracted from my balance and I wouldn’t have to pay anything else for that trip.  Awesome.  Let’s go shopping.  Now let’s say later that month I need to visit my family for a birthday party.  It’s a 2 1/2 hour drive each way, so I’m just going to reserve the car for the whole day (reservations over 8 hours default to the daily rate, which makes for a better value).  That’s $71.10 for the day.  But I’ve still got $11.28 in driving credit for the month, so when I book the car, they only bill my card for the balance of $59.82.  Awesome.  Now if I was using that much driving every month, I might bump up to one of the higher memberships just for the convenience of paying once.  But I don’t always, so I just stick to that lower membership.

Now you might be thinking, “$70 for a car for the day?! With gas prices and insurance, that’s crazy!”  But here’s the best part.  The car sharing service covers the insurance.  And the gas.  And the maintenance on the car.  And the registration.  And all of the other expenses associated with owning the car.  I’ve only got to make sure that I keep my driver’s license valid.  There are some limitations of course.  For each reservation, you get 180 miles per day.  They bill you a small per-mile charge for going over that amount, $0.45 per mile.  There’s a dedicated fuel credit card in each of the cars, so if you need gas while you’re out and about, you can fuel up without having to dig into your own pocket and waiting for reimbursement.  The insurance covers you in case of an accident, there’s a deductible of course, but you can pay a little bit extra each month (less than $10) for a $0 deductible.

Especially at first, I was worried about making reservations ahead of time.  How in the world could I estimate how long it would take me to go grocery shopping?  The nice thing is that as long as there isn’t a reservation that starts immediately after yours (in 4 months of using the service, I’ve never had that happen), you can extend your reservation on the go.  Reservations are billed in 30 minute increments, so if you really only need another half an hour, you’re not stuck paying for a full hour.  And it gets easier.  You learn how long it actually takes you to do your errands.  You get better organized, so it doesn’t take as long to shop or get things done as it used to.

Specifically as a fat person, there are a couple of things I really appreciate about Zipcar, and a few things I wish were different.  I like that I have several different types of vehicles available to me, so I can pick something that is comfortable for me to drive.  They do make an effort to make the vehicles easily accessible by transit, so for those with mobility concerns it’s not terribly difficult to get to the vehicles.  I rarely have to walk more than 1/4 mile from a bus or light rail stop to the vehicles.  I’ve tried driving both the Honda Civics and Nissan Sentras available in my area, and have not been comfortable in either car.  While I can sit in the driver’s seat just fine, the seat belts can barely latch.  I did a little checking, and Honda doesn’t offer seat belt extenders for any of their vehicles.  Nissan does offer extenders, but charges upwards of $45 per extender.  I’ve gotten extenders for Ford and Chevy vehicles before, and neither company charged me, even though I was the second owner of one car, and the other car didn’t even belong to me.  Honda assumes that your legs or stomach touch the steering wheel if you need an extender, and thus suggests that you drive a larger car instead.  I don’t have that problem.  Also, I regularly drive the Mazda 3’s, which are not only smaller, but the seat belt fits just fine without an extension AND I have more room overall in the driver’s seat of that car.  So that complaint is more “the state of the auto industry in general” rather than a problem with Zipcar.  I’m still not going to shell out the money for an extender for the Nissan, I’ll just drive the Mazda instead.

ETA – I’m not receiving anything for writing this review, it’s simply my personal opinion from my own experience using the service.

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