ZipCar 2010

2010 was the first complete calendar year in which I was both a Zipcar member and in New York the entire year. How’d it work out?

I rented cars seventeen times. My total Zipcar bill for 2010 was $2055.35. That’s a few hundred dollars less than garage space alone would have cost me in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Financially Zipcar still makes a lot of sense. And the biggest advantage was I didn’t have the daily stress car ownership in New York entails (garages, insurance, alternate side of the street parking, digging your car out from under the snow, etc.) However it wasn’t all roses:

  • Zipcar availability was extremely limited. Weekend rentals require at least several days and often a week or more advance reservation, and it’s getting worse. Last year I could get last minute cars during the winter months. This year I can’t. For example, yesterday there was one car available at 7:30 AM within 5 miles of me (and it was more than a mile away.) Today there was no car closer than 2.5 miles. Zipcar is heavily oversubscribed, at least in New York City.
  • When cars are available, they are often in inconvenient locations. I can very rarely reserve a car at the most convenient garage two blocks away from me. I usually have to go to the one of the garages 3-4 times further away.
  • Pricing is good for all day trips (by New York standards at least), but it really doesn’t make sense for quick trips to the grocery store or the mall, exactly what ZipCar is pitching. Part of the problem is that you have to schedule your return time in advance. Miss it and you get charged punitively large late fees. This hurts availability because people often reserve more time than they actually need or will use.
  • Multiday rentals are not competitive or even available. I considered ZipCar for a five-day trip to Canada I was planning, but they wouldn’t rent to me for that long.

There’s a lot of room for improvement, particularly with availability and scheduling. Whether Zipcar will improve, or one of the traditional car rental companies will move into their space I don’t know. Hertz is getting more aggressive about competing for short term rentals and car replacement. If they’re willing to cannibalize their existing business, and not blindly copy the Zipcar model, they could retake the market. They’ve already got the longterm rental down. Now they need to make sure sufficient cars are available at prime locations for all members, and price such that short, indefinite trips are possible.

Bottom line: I still don’t think it makes sense for me to own a car given the limited amount I drive, but if I did own a car I would have used it more. I would have been a lot more likely to take it out for a few hours here and there, especially on weekends. I probably would have shopped at Costco more, and visited Jamaica Bay and further points in Brooklyn more often. As it’s configured now, Zipcar is really only suitable for preplanned excursions with very definite beginning and end times, or full day rentals. It is definitely inadequate for impulse travel and quick errands. As long as the choice is Zipcar or no car, then Zipcar makes sense; but Zipcar completely fails for anyone for whom a car is necessity, even occasionally, rather than a nice-to-have. And it’s less than ideal for someone who wants regular access to a car. I think I could easily pay double for a service that guaranteed I’d actually be able to get a car when I wanted one rather than letting an excessively large membership compete for limited inventory.

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