Zipcar... Not at All Like Bikeshare

So, we have finally signed up for Zipcar, and I thought it might be useful to share my impressions. While I had imagined a motorised version of a bikeshare program, Zipcar is a different thing entirely.

Here is how it works: First you buy a yearly membership. It is worth noting that some employers have programs for employees to try it free, which was the case with us - but otherwise it's $60 per year plus a $25 application fee (so essentially you pay $85 to sign up). You are then able to rent a Zipcar by the hour at rates that start at $7.50 per hour. The rate depends on the type of car you need. So, for instance, a compact sedan might be $7.50, but a truck or SUV would be more like $12. You can also rent a Zipcar for an entire day, and the daily rates start from $69. To use a car you must reserve it, which can be done online or via smartphone. You specify in advance the exact time you will be getting and returning the car, and when finished, you must return the car to the same location from which you got it.

I can see how this system would be useful for those who need a car for short and pre-planned trips to the grocery/  hardware/ furniture store, or for meetings with clients that are short and finite in nature. However, our needs are different and there is no way Zipcar would work for us in most circumstances.

Scenario 1: We need to go to our photo studio or to a photoshoot in a far-off location, and to bring a bunch of enormous equipment with us. We will then be staying there for 5 hours working, maybe longer - depends how it goes. And it's the weekend.

Problems: We'd have to rent the car for en entire day, because at the hourly rate it would not be worth it. Either way, the rate would be quite high, because we'd need a large vehicle. Additionally Zipcar's weekend rates are higher than weekday rates, which would make the fee greater still. Car rental makes more sense than Zipcar.

Scenario 2: There is an urgent situation and we need a car right away.

Problems: We check the Zipcar reservation site and there are no cars available in any locations within 2 miles from us for the next hour and a half (This is true: I just checked). We also do not know for how long we need the car - could be 45 minutes, or could be 3 hours. A taxi makes more sense than Zipcar.

So... since 90% of the times we need a car, it is one of the above scenarios, Zipcar is not really the right choice for us. However, I think that if Zipcar worked more like a bikeshare program, it could be more useful for everyone. In many areas, there is a dense grid of Zipcar locations - so why not make it so that a car can be checked out from one location and returned to another? I am sure there are good logistical reasons why this is not done, and as always no system is perfect. I hope this was useful for those considering a Zipcar membership and wondering how the system works.


  1. I agree- I would love to use zipcar instead of owning a car. Yet for me I would want to use it to Go from here to Cape cod and return the car somewhere on the cape and then be carfree while on the cape... and then perhaps get another one and take it home.

  2. I looked into zipcar and passed on it. For one thing, they only have cars in Vancouver so would have to go into the city to get one, and the real rates are much higher than advertised. Does Boston have an older cooperative carshare program? There is also the idea of sharing a vehicle with another person or persons that like you mostly bike, but sometimes need a car. Problems might arise like you need the car on the same day-but maybe only rarely would it happen.

  3. I think that even with bikeshare programs, you'll find that bikes tend to collect in certain spots (not everyone rides A-to-B round trips), hence why Bixi and Velib have flatbeds that are intended to redistribute bikes so that they don't all end up in certain popular clusters. I believe that Zipcar has a small crew of bike equipped mechanics\caretakers who ride out to the various lots to deal with routine maintenance and\or drive cars to get the service shops for oil changes and tire rotations (or at least this was the explanation given to me when I used to work for a client who shared building space with ZipCar Boston and I wondered about the perpetually crowded nature of the office bike racks) but it would probably be cost ineffective for these folks to also be responsible for redistributing cars as they fill up certain parking spots.

    When we were casting about for car alternatives, we considered then discarded ZipCar for reasons similar to yours. ZipCar is really meant to be a replacement for a taxi or a bus trip. If one primarily uses a car to intermittently work or play somewhere that is beyond practical cycling distance, then it doesn't work.

  4. I use Zipcar here in Chicago, and find it pretty useful even with the difficulty regarding the availability in a pinch.

    I think it is worthwhile to point out that the per-hour and day rates include insurance and gas, where with regular car rental the renter is responsible.

    The con I run into more often is if I need to take a longer trip, Zipcar limits the miles traveled per day, so it makes sense to use traditional rental.

    There are other considerations that crop up, but I think they might be unique to Illinois.

  5. I'm very happy that you have NOT reached the conclusion that a privately owned vehicle is the less expensive choice in both cases. Where I live there is no Zipcar, very few taxis, and limited public transit. The heavy use of private cars is just not sustainable. I maintain a private car at this time but only use it when riding is really not practical -- about once a week, about 30 miles. The car is paid for and my mechanic is free (DH). If I had to make car payments, I would probably just rent once a week instead.

  6. Lynne - It depends on what one uses the car for, on whether they own vs lease the car, on their local insurance rates, and a whole bunch of other stuff. We still haven't gotten our car fixed (over 4 months without car now), but will most likely get it done in April, because for us it really is the best option. Our car is fully paid for, it's just the right size for what we need to transport, we have a designated off-street parking spot that comes with our apartment, and insurance rates in MA are fairly inexpensive. So no matter how you spin it, it is both more convenient and less costly for us to use our private car than to rent a car for the day or to use Zipcar in most cases. It's just that over the winter months, we really hardly needed it - but once the weather here finally improves, we will need it again.

  7. There are several problems with Zipcar.

    1. The rates are much closer to $12 per hour because they have few cheaper cars.

    2. You must plan your weekend and other high desirability time period trips a week in advance. Spontaneity is not Zipcar's strong suit contrary to their ads.

    3. How are you getting to a Zipcar 2 miles away? There's probably one 0.2 miles from your home, but it's usually taken when you need it. Oh, and don't forget about getting back after you return it.

    4. You can't use Zipcar for trips where you spend more than an hour at your destination because the per-hour waiting fee quickly becomes more expensive than cabs. Zipcar wants you to think that it can replace buses and taxis, but it can't due to that issue.

    5. Yes, gas and insurance are free, but you must include getting gas into your schedule. If you're stuck in traffic somewhere, you must include extra time. You end up paying for that every time you overestimate your rental.

    6. You can't take a day-trip with Zipcar unless it's really close because of milage limits.

    7. If there is any damage, you pay serious money unless you buy an expensive waiver (additional $50-75 per year). They can also cut you off while they investigate. I don't fully understand the limitations of this, but it could be that you're not going to be able to use Zipcar for weeks if there are any issues.

    So, one use case is: you make a weekly shopping trip that takes less than two hours door-to-door and you reserve the Zipcar for that time slot and pay around $24, which may be cheaper than cabs.

    Another use case is: You drive to places at night and there is a Zipcar next to your house that you can use. Overnight rates are cheaper and Zipcars are easier to get in evenings.

    Or perhaps: You just keep a membership, just in case, because it's free or almost free. If an idea comes up and Zipcar works for it, then excellent. We fall into this category.

    There are also several issues with car rental:

    1. If you don't already have a car with insurance that covers rentals, you'll end up paying a premium. Some credit cards cover rentals, but I think you have to decline the insurance from the rental and you may be liable out of pocket while you deal with your claim. I haven't recently read the fine print on my credit card, but I am aware of other people who claim they successfully use credit cards for rental insurance.

    2. Unless the place is literally nearby, it's a pain to deal with all the paperwork and getting to/from for frequent use, and it may be cheaper to take cabs. On the other hand, rental cars are excellent for long + multi-day trips.

    I am not sure which is better in all cases, but if you can have a free Zipcar membership nothing is stopping you from using a system of some times taxis, other times car rentals and yet other times Zipcar depending on which works best. So the message here is stay flexible.

    None of this is worth the trouble, in my opinion, so we'll be getting back to full-time private car use very soon. We'll check back in ten years and see where car shares are at that time. :)

  8. They offered us the Zipcar deal at work and i looked over the details. OMG WHAT A RIP OFF.
    They want us to pay a yearly fee to join what is basically a massively overpriced car rental agency. After the yearly fee, victims pay $8 and hour, are they freaking KIDDING? Everyone should know that all the major agencies regularly have $21 or $24 per day compact cars, right? And some of them are so competitive they'll bring your car to you.
    The sales balls these people have are outrageously huge; they make it seem like a club and idiots go for it... Amazing.

  9. Vee - Right, same here. And I thought you could do that with zipcar, but no. Not only would you have to pay for it sitting idle the entire time you're on the Cape, but there are extra charges if you exceed something like 118 miles during your rental (even after paying a daily rate).

    cris - Even as a replacement for a bus or taxi trip, I don't really see how it would work, unless you're planning to get what you need done very quickly and immediately go back. Otherwise, both taxis and public transport give you more freedom, as they don't limit the time you choose to spend at your destination.

    But, as MDI said - if you're in a situation where you can get the membership for free, it doesn't hurt to sign up and have that option available. Otherwise, it may or may not be worth it.

  10. Unseelie - One advantage to zipcar over car rental is that there is no paperwork to fill out. Another is that if you really do need a car for just an hour and you are fine with the compactest sedan they have, then it does make more sense to pay $7.50 instead of $25. But overall, I agree with you.

  11. I have had 2 experiences with car-coops (structurally not the same as a car-share but same basic function); one in Montreal and one in Guelph (just west of Toronto).

    In Montreal the theft of our own car prompted my wife and I to join Communauto; this was a quite positive experience because a) there were a great many cars available at plenty of well placed sites around the city. Maybe you could think of it as the bixi-bike of car shares...and b)the public transportation system filled in the gaps around the city when needed. The fares were competitive and there was cooperative agreements with certain rental companies to ensure a fair price on longer term rentals. I expect this all took a lot of groundwork to establish but it worked well. I was pleased to have had my car stolen (after the fact), and to have been part of this car-coop.

    My next experience with our local Guelph car-coop was less successful (2 children had been added to the mix) and lasted less than a year after a friend passed a decent used vehicle my way. Our local coop has 2 cars only, both located near one another downtown and suffers from a lack of the convenience that comes with a system with multiple locations and cars. Because of the scale of the coop, it was entirely dependent upon members (which did give us the lowest prices in Canada), and because of this growth was slow (or even viewed with suspect). When I returned to private car ownership, I was surprised at my unabashed enjoyment at not having to schlep through the snow to pick up a car, return home to pick up car seats and family, then do the whole thing in reverse again. Unfortunately, the coop in this case was not successful, mostly because of scale.

    -final note, I do commute to work on my bike (6 miles return trip), most days of the year!

  12. Sigh! Anytime that involves the car ,or the use, of a car there are both large gobs of money ,and much inconvenience, involved no matter the reason.

    We've owned our two vehicles for about 20 years but they still cost gobs of money just to own them little used. So I see no good way to avoid the sucking sound of owning ,or using, any car will involve. I just wish we lived in a city with mass transit so I could sell those money pits!!!

  13. Ah, the per hour pricing structure--that's why I see so many Zips flying around corners, squealing tires and generally looking like they're being driven by teenagers.

  14. I'll give a near-solitary prop to Zipcar, or say that it works pretty well for me. I use it mostly for errands that would take too long in a taxi, or where the place I'm going to is short on taxis for the route home. Frankly, it's often just a pain even in the city, to wait the extra ten or twenty minutes it takes to wait for a summoned cab.

    I have to say that in my Zipcar-dense neighborhood, I've never had a problem getting a car, even on weekends. Maybe in the summer it'd be harder, but there are probably a dozen cars within 5-15 minutes walk from home, so there's always something available. And cost-wise...again, it works for me. The cab back and forth from the grocery store, say, or Target would cost $15-25 and again, include extra time waiting. And of course compared with the costs of actually owning a car that I'd use maybe twice a week...not even close.

  15. Sarah - I can totally see how zipcar would work when used as you use it, and I'm actually surprised at the number of negative vs positive comments here!

  16. In Austin they have a Car2Go program that is way better than this sounds. You have a card that is the "key" to unlock the doors and you just wave it in front of the windshield. You can pick up a Car2Go anywhere and leave it anywhere within the city's zone. It's all pay by the hour too, and all of the cars are Smart Cars. My boyfriend has a membership and it's been pretty awesome so far!

  17. I was a little curious about Zipcar when they introduced it here but skeptical due to the requirement that you must return it to the same location, which kind of cooled any interest I had in the program. Anyways, as one of those saps who commutes about 20 miles daily suburb-to-suburb and doesn't live in the city and doesn't particularly trust what little public transportation there is, I have my own car which ends up costing me a monthly car payment, gas, insurance and periodic maintenance costs.

    But that's just part of life and most of the public transport/car share/ car co-op things are really only viable for city-dwellers or people who commute to-from the city.

    Then again, I'm not political about cars, so I think people should just do whatever they prefer and can afford car-wise, be it renting, leasing, owning or no car. What bugs me is when people try to affix a political motivation one way or the other to a car-related decision when, in truth, it has nothing to do with that.

  18. ^ agree with your last paragraph entirely

  19. If you pick up a Zipcar, go to a store and leave it--image this is allowed--how would you find a Zipcar to go home in?

    You would have to (1) rely on your phone to find one and (2) hope there is actually one someone left nearby or yours is still there.

    I don't like Zipcar's leave it in the same place as you got it policy, but I understand why they do it this way. A better solution would be cheaper per-hour non-driving time. But they probably can't afford that because they would need way, way more cars + parking spots for those cars.

  20. We don't have Zipcar here, instead two other local options and they are far cheaper.

  21. We've started using zip car to replace our car, and for what we use it for, it has worked awesome. We have 4-5 within easy walking distance of our apartment, including a Prius, Toyota Tacoma, and another smallish sedan. We normally will be using it for 2-3 hours at a time, and not to go to a destination where we will be staying for some time, so the system works pretty well for us. We've also used the pickup for an hour or two to pick up or drop off furniture or other large items.

    I can, however, see how it would be a much less than ideal solution for how you would be using it. Sounds like getting your own car fixed is going to be by far the best solution for you.

  22. It's pretty simple: if you want to use a car on a regular basis be prepared to pony up the $$. Bikes are cheap and convenient for lots of trips. To use a car will always be way more expensive: regardless of how zipcar works you still pay to have a car you own sit idle. Parking, maintenance, insurance, taxes, gas all adds up to not having cake and eating it too. Man you guys are spoiled on some non-existent utopian ideals.

  23. zipcar for me is awesome. I drive occasionally for work and instead of commuting to work and back to pick up one of two company cars, I get a zipcar .1 mile from my house, literally my own garage. gas and insurance are included and i get to pick the car I want. I then expense the car to work, so I am not even paying for it. I rarely use it for personal purposes except when uber lazy- usually to get rent checks up big hills to my landlords. at any given time there are between 20 and 50 cars within .25 miles from my house. my only complaint is that i was car free before becoming a zipster and I definitely drive more as a member than when it wasn:t an option. I think there need to be variations on car share programs though so they will work for many circumstances and really contribute to fewer cars on the road. It wouldn:t make sense for example for me to use zipcar for a weekend getaway, but I would love if it did.

  24. Brian: to think that everyone can use a bike for every trip they need to make is a pretty non-existent utopian ideal, or to think that owning a car is the wrong option for every person.

  25. I wasn't politically motivated to join Communauto in Montreal, I needed access to a car, but became attuned to the politics of cars through joining. Later I spend some time on the board of our local coop and was faced directly with car questions face on; basically we leaned toward the philosophy that getting around in a car was a necessary evil and we should try to cushion the blow to our personal finances and the environment as much as possible.

    I really like the idea of car share and will talk about it enthusiastically but the only thing that will prompt people to choose a car share over a private one is when it functions well enough, (usually weighing convenience of a private car over against savings offered by a car share)

    The politics of car shares are understanding is that Zip Car is a profit making organization owned by some big company (I forget who), but the final result is still that there are less cars on the road, and sharing (even if someone profits from it) is a positive thing (I think there might be a political movement or two that draw on that principle!)...

    I know we are just comparing car share programs here but I think it's useful to distinguish between the politics of our motivation and the politics of cars and transportation in general.

  26. I live in a city that does not have Zipcar, and if there was a zipcar, we would sign up immediately. In my case, my wife and I live car-light. We have one car between us which is used perhaps once or twice per week. The cost of maintaining that car, with insurance, registration, maintenance etc makes it very expensive compared to Zipcar. Zipcar would make it much easier for us to go car-free. We do from time to time take longer trips, and for those, we could still use a traditional rental, but Zipcar would be great for when we want to go to a store which is outside of bicycle/public transit range, or to go to a friend's house for dinner.

  27. Just a couple positive comment here about why Zipcar works for me. For you it does look like a private car is the best solution, since you already own one. However for people who don't already own a car, the monthly cost of car ownership can quickly exceed the cost of Zipcar (IF you don't drive much). For example I might drive 15min outside the city to have dinner with friends. You might argue that the per-hour waiting cost does not make it not worthwhile to pay for 5 hours of ZipCar for this purpose - $50-$60 does seem outrageous just to have dinner! But I don't think of it on a per-trip basis. If I only take those trips a few times per month, I'm paying ~$150/month for total car expenses, which is cheaper than buying and maintaining a car. Not owning a car also allows me to rent out my off-street parking space - that income covers most of my Zipcar costs.

    Just to clarify - a couple of people have commented on Zipcar "mileage limits":
    "6. You can't take a day-trip with Zipcar unless it's really close because of milage limits."

    Not true - you can drive as far as you want. They just charge you extra if you go beyond the limit.

    For daytips, Zipcar is also what I use. At least in Boston, for me, the cost of a 1 day rental car is roughly equivalent to the cost of a 24hr Zipcar (after paying for the rental car insurance, which I must do since I don't have my own car insurance). I also don't have a rental company near my home and often don't want to pickup/dropoff during the limited hours that rental companies offer. I'd rather walk to the Zipcar on the corner.

    All that said though, the one big complaint I have about Zipcar is that I can't take unplanned last-minute trips on the weekend because all the cars near me are booked. For that reason alone I do fantasize about buying a car one of these days. But in the meantime I will try to be better at planning!

  28. I have the same problems with iGo, the local Chicago version of Zip Car (the city has both). That's why I've never used it, even though I have a family membership. I end up going for the train or cabs if needed.

  29. I could not imagine living without a car. Our Family farm is 200 miles away and we like to go there as often as possible. I like riding my bikes but they could never replace my car.

  30. When we moved back to Somerville, we looked into zipcar, but in the end went with buying my mom's old car when she got a new car. This has worked out pretty well for us; we were able to buy the car for cash and have it fixed up. At the rate we use it (about 1500 miles a year) we will be able to keep it for as long as we need it. Over the course of the last four years it's probably been not much more expensive than other options. There's no way it made sense for us to buy new, though.

  31. Aaron wrote: "The politics of car shares are understanding is that Zip Car is a profit making organization owned by some big company (I forget who), but the final result is still that there are less cars on the road, and sharing (even if someone profits from it) is a positive thing (I think there might be a political movement or two that draw on that principle!)..."

    See, personally, I like to avoid highly political conclusions like that because then you run into the same problems you have in the cycling community which is that, when cycling gets turned into a hyper-political issue, the community (AND local cycling groups) at large begin to assign a political motivation to the actions of cyclists.

    To put it in plain terms, political reasons play no part in a) why I ride a bike, b) why I drive a car everyday and c) why I would or wouldn't use a care share service, and I feel like that may be true for quite a lot of others as well. That's why I get distinctly unpleasant when people try to drag the political motivations into these things because then it invariably means that we end up judging other people's actions as somehow politically motivated when that couldn't be further from the truth. And this is where I think much of the car v. bike animus is born.

  32. I sold my car last year, and now my husband and I share a car. I commute by bus to work (in Seattle) and Zipcar has worked great for me on those rare days when hubby and I needed the car on the same day. My employer also has an in-house version that I use for business travel. It does have some limitations, but if I just need to do some errands or go to an event, it works great.

  33. My son used ZipCar while in college with good results. Currently he lives in Somerville and works in Boston, he still has his Zipcar membership but has only used it once in the past 3 years. I believe his company gives him a monthly transit pass because he doesn't require parking. If he drove he would have to pay something to park.

    It appears Zipcar works in some situations and not in others. Car ownership is expensive, but so are kids, cable, internet, wine, women and song! We make our choices on what we wish to spend money on (for the most part) and live with those choices.


  34. We use Zipcar as a backup system, for when I take the car to work and my wife has to run an errand. It's useful to have around (there is a Zipcar stand just down the street from my house).
    If I was single I might rely solely on Zipcar and my bike, with my bike being by primary mode of transportation. I would use Zipcar when I needed to transport something, or when it was too far or the weather was too bad to ride. This would be expensive but probably less overall than the cost of buying a car, maintaining it, paying for insurance, and providing a parking space.

  35. Relay Rides, currently available in Boston and SF, is peer-to-peer carsharing.

    From their website: "Borrow cars from car owners in your neighborhood, by the hour or by the day." (And you book and unlock the cars just like with normal carshare).

    Car2Go as someone mentioned is a model which will start to spread in the next couple of years, but unlike Zip or P2P, it will probably have less choice of vehicle.

    I know one of the guys who helped start it so lemme know if you want a personal contact.

    See also

  36. I live in Seattle and the zip car program is pretty ubiquitous. I live near the university so there are generally four or five hybrids available in walking distance to my house. Additionally they have some larger vehicles like pickup trucks and SUV that are pretty handy. I agree that It would be pretty convenient to be able to pick one up and drop it off in another location, but for those kinds of trips I am more likely to ride anyway. Moving furniture, large grocery runs and picking up friends from out of town seems to be the kinds of trips it's most valuable for. Also mountain biking at the trail complex since there isn't very good bus coverage. I imagine a bike trailer would eliminate the need as far as Costco trips are concerned.

  37. To follow up on our zipcar experience: We've used it twice so far.

    The first time, our zipcar card did not work and the car would not open. We phoned customer service and it was determined that the card we received was defective. They instructed us how to retrieve another, working card, and 10 minutes later we were able to use the car. We were not, however, able, to extend our rental period by an extra 10 minutes, because someone had already reserved the car immediately after us. So as a result we had to hurry and get what we needed done in a shorter time than planned. Zipcar gave us a small refund for those unused 10 minutes.

    The second time, everything was fine until the car needed to be fueled up. There was a glitch with that experience, and it too took longer than anticipated, eating significantly into the time we had budgeted for our trip. This time no one had reserved the car after us and we were able to extend the rental time by a half hour. Zipcar gave us a small refund to compensate for the time spent dealing with the fueling-up glitch.

    So... two out of two experiences so far have not been smooth. The option just does not feel reliable to us as a result. Will update again in future months.

  38. To follow up once again, we've used zipcar a couple more times since the previous comment, and it went smoothly.

  39. We use Zipcars at my workplace and it's fantastic for the odd time when we need a car to run and get supplies or haul something big like furniture. It basically saves the hassle and expense of renting a car from a traditional rental agency. I definitely wouldn't use it to commute or anything, but it's great as an alternative for someone who doesn't drive regularly.


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