Flexcar: Public Car Sharing in 2005
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Flexcar is a car sharing program that started in Seattle, Wa., but it is quickly spreading across America. Flexcar members pay a small initial fee to join, then reserve cars online, for use as needed. People pay by the hour to use Flexcars, and the fees are all-inclusive, meaning that insurance, gas, maintenance, parking, etc. are all included in the hourly fee. The hourly fees range from approximately .50 - an hour, depending on the membership package you choose. In Seattle, there are Flexcars all over town. You can often reserve a car for use within a block or two of your home, with only a few minutes notice.
I joined Flexcar in Oct. 2005 because there are times I need access to a car, but private car ownership seems so incredibly irresponsible at this point. I usually walk, bike, or bus, but there are certain times and chores that require a vehicle. For instance, moving is a time I need to access vehicles…and Flexcar has vans you can use in addition to passenger cars. Not too long ago, I needed to haul 2 computers somewhere simultaneously and I couldn’t do it by bus. And a taxi would have been very expensive. Waiting on friends for their help got old, and with Flexcar, I was able to pay for the hour and do the chore myself.
It is hard for my friends to find a place to park on the streets in my neighborhood when they visit me. If I owned a car, I would be in a parking hell anytime I wanted to use my car, upon return. But Flexcar has a permanent parking space one block from my home. When I use it, I can park it easily when I am done. The time and stress saved by that alone is worthy of note.
The first thing people want to know about Flexcar is how it works in actuality. You pay a membership fee. (I got a reduced rate due to my decades-old membership with the Puget Consumers’ Co-op…this comradery between car and food co-ops is a good idea). After registration, you are issued a membership card and pin numbers. You can then make a reservation online, specifying the car type and location, and the date and time period you want the car for, and then at that time, you go to the car. You place your membership card on a certain spot on the window, and it opens the locks on the vehicle doors. Once inside, the key is in the glove compartment with a keypad. You punch in your pin number and it then says, “Start the car.” You can then use the car like a normal car, except you have to key in your pin number every time you start it. Once done with the car, you park it where you got it, put the keys back in the glove compartment and lock the car up for the next user.
If the car is low on gas, there is a gas credit card in the car. You are given a gas pin number to use for the gas card. All gas costs are included in the hourly price. Every time I have used a Flexcar there was a near full tank of gas.
The car nearest my home is a hybrid. I feel good that I am not only sharing a car, but I am also sharing a hybrid. I am impressed at the way Flexcar functions like a choreographed dance. Not long ago, my son needed help with little notice. I went online to see about using a Flexcar and the one closest to me was reserved from 5 am to noon that day. So at 11 am, I was able to reserve the car for use from 1-3 pm. I saw someone later reserved it from 3:30 pm until 8 pm. So, three of us used that car that day. And two of us reserved the car that day, only hours before use. And it all worked out beautifully.
The billing process is very direct, as well. They send you a bill a week prior to billing, outlining hours used and fees to be billed. Your bank account is then billed for the hours used. For me, this later payment arrangement is useful For instance, if I have a far away gig in an out of the way place, I can use a Flexcar to get to the gig, get paid for the gig,and *then* pay for the transportation costs. I believe you can also use Flexcars between some states, such as Washington and Oregon, and I think you can also use them to go into Canada from Seattle, with permission from Flexcar.
There are certain Flexcars with deals attached to them. The cars near my home, for instance, have a deal where you pay for 10 hours and you get 24 hours. The online specials range from 5-10 hours payment for 24 hour periods. There is a membership option that includes free Flexcar privileges from midnight to 5 am as well.
I could not join Flexcar for a long time because it requires a credit card. Even now, I only have achieved a debit card, not a real credit card, but that was enough plastic to finally make Flexcar accessible to me. I do not like the way that set up locks out a lot of poor people. I am also very very concerned at the newest major investors in Flexcar. Within the last few months, a majority of stock in Flexcar was purchased by an investment group headed by Lee Iacocca and Steve Case, co-founder of Aol.com. This new investment launched a claim by Flexcar last month that the number of their cars would double in the Seattle area shortly. And a week or two ago, the front page of Flexcar.com had a headlining story about Steve Case coming on board with Flexcar, but now, there is no trace of anything mentioning it on their site AT ALL that I can find! That seems very odd. So, I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes at Flexcar, but the idea and product is a good one.
Flexcar has a program for low-income people. You can get an authorization code from your social worker and use Flexcars for necessary trips, such as job search, childcare transportation for work-related things, etc…and the hourly fee for these trips, from what I can tell, run the driver about an hour, with all costs included. Flexcar long ago partnered with city, county and state officials in Washington state and thus the Flexcar system is actually integrated as part of the public transportation system, in ways, at this point, in Seattle.
There are approximately 4 Flexcars within half a mile of my home in Seattle, and about 10 more within 1-2 miles of my home. I have never been unable to reserve a nearby Flexcar for use when I have needed one, whether that reservation was made a week or an hour in advance. I have only had trouble with a Flexcar once; it had trouble taking my pin code to start. I called the Flexcar phone number, a person answered immediately and the problem was fixed within less than 5 minutes. I have to applaud that type of service.
Flexcars are available in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago and Wa. DC. This seems to be a viable, working model of public car sharing and it is a good direction for us to be taking as a society. Private car ownership seems to be a relic creature of a past American oblivion. Mass transportation, bike culture and public car sharing of hybrid and biodiesel cars are the direction of the future. Cars, running on oil, are not ideal. But if we are going to have them, sharing them is better than not sharing them. I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Los Angeles where every woman, man and child had their own car. Flexcar and car sharing is a totally different mentality and it is long overdue. Flexcar has some class obstacles, and some corporate alliances that are alarming, but Flexcar is also showing people a new way to think about and interact with important transportation issues, and for that, I have to give them props.