Column: MM Does Zipcar

Anyone interested in buying my Honda Civic?
Sign at the entrance to the parking lot off of Thomson, between Madison and Packard.

Sign at the entrance to the parking lot off of Thompson, between Madison and Packard.

We’ve been talking about getting rid of our car for a long time, and I’ll admit I’m the one who’s been dragging my feet. For me, having a car is a habit – an addiction, really – and unable to go cold turkey, I’ve been edging toward carlessness in nicotine patch-like phases.

Zipcar has driven me into the final phase. We joined in February, and last week I took my first Zipcar excursion to the Ann Arbor Public Schools budget forum at Scarlett Middle School. What a sweet, unremarkable ride it was.

But before we go there, let’s talk a bit about freedom.

Part of my reluctance to go car-free has hinged on my sense that owning a car gives me freedom, and that without a car I’ll be trapped. I don’t think this is a totally irrational belief, rooted as it is in my own Midwestern cultural experience. I grew up in a small suburb of about 10 homes surrounded by miles of farmland – if you didn’t have a car, you were indeed stuck.

But now, we live in a city with public transportation. There are taxis. There are, obviously, Zipcars. A lot of things – places to buy food, be entertained, get your hair cut – are within walking distance. David, my husband and partner at The Chronicle, rides his bike almost exclusively. I got a scooter last year, a red Honda Ruckus that gives me a wide range of mobility. For longer trips, there’s an Enterprise rental office just three blocks from our home.

There are other factors, too. I don’t have to commute to Detroit – I work in the community where I live, and I don’t typically have back-to-back commitments that require me to move quickly between different, far-flung locations. Nor do I have a ton of stuff I have to haul around for work. And we don’t have children, so we don’t have to deal with that complex overlay of transportation demands. (I’d be interested in hearing how families with kids manage without a car.)

Given all of this, then, why own a car? The only real answer for me is the luxury of convenience and spontaneity. That sense of freedom I was talking about earlier. The I-want-to-do-it-now factor. What about those days when, just because the sun is shining, you decide you’d like to drive out to the Dexter A&W? What about when that project you’re working on calls for a load of lumber from Fingerle? Those kinds of things.

My first Zipcar, a Toyota Matrix.

My first Zipcar, a Toyota Matrix. The firm's slogan – "Wheels when you want them" – is printed under the license plate.

And that’s the psychological pothole that Zipcar patched for me.

Proximity helped. Zipcars have been in Ann Arbor since 2007, in spots located near the University of Michigan campus. The closest cluster to our home is about a mile away, at the lot off of Thompson Street between Packard and Madison. But later this month, Zipcar is adding four cars at two locations downtown: In Kerrytown at Fourth and Catherine, and at the lot next to Palio’s at the corner of Main and William. For me, that last spot is a 10-minute walk from home.

Zipcar also makes the barrier to joining relatively low. There’s a $25 sign-up fee, plus a $50 annual membership fee. Beyond that, you pay $8 per hour for the use of a car. You have to reserve your car online – a straightforward process that took me less than 5 minutes – but if it turns out you need it longer than you thought, you can call and get more time. Cars can be reserved and used 24/7.

My first Zipcar trip was impressive in that it was totally mundane. The car I’d reserved was in the exact spot that Zipcar had told me, via email, it would be located – though initially I went to the wrong parking lot, and had to ask a passer-by where the Zipcars were parked. Luckily, she knew. The Zipcard I’d received in the mail, which looks like a credit card, did exactly what it was supposed to: I held it over a spot clearly indicated on the upper right corner of the front windshield, and the doors unlocked. The key was in a compartment between the front seats, the car was relatively clean inside and out, it didn’t smell like smoke or wet dogs, and the gas tank was half full.

Zipcar members gain entry by holding their Zipcard over the

Zipcar members gain entry by holding their Zipcard over the spot indicated on the front windshield, which unlocks the doors. When you're finished for the day, you leave the key inside and lock the doors using the same procedure.

Did I mention you don’t pay for gas? Or insurance and maintenance?

There are other costs that aren’t incurred by individual “Zipsters,” but that are still worth noting. Zipcar wouldn’t be here, for example, were it not for the university and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority guaranteeing a minimum amount of revenue per car. For example, for the four cars that will be located downtown, a contract with the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce (in partnership with getDowntown) runs for three years, with a minimum guarantee of $1,500 in monthly revenue per car. Annual membership fees don’t factor in to that tally.

It’s a safety net for the company, if the cars don’t get enough usage. But if Zipcar’s revenue from customers surpasses the guaranteed amount, then the local organizations are off the hook. And it seems like there’s a good chance for that. Back in December, when the DDA authorized funding of the fourth car in getDowntown’s Zipcar fleet, The Chronicle reported getDowntown director Nancy Shore’s description of the $1,500  guarantee as corresponding to 40% usage – with the UM Zipcar program already enjoying 60% usage.

And car-sharing isn’t confined to our quirky Ann Arbor corner of the world. In its March 8 issue, the New York Times Magazine published an article about Zipcars in which the company’s CEO projects a 40% growth in revenue this year.

More interesting to me than that, or than the estimate that Zipcar users who ditch their cars save on average $600 per month, is the fact that using a Zipcar or other car-sharing program actually alters behavior in a fairly dramatic way: “Evidence suggests that sharers drive from a quarter to half as much as owners – a staggering reduction in energy consumption. Not only do they drive less frequently, but they also drive differently. They ‘chain’ their trips, making multiple stops along the shortest route in order to drive most efficiently. They save money, do better by the environment and contribute less to congestion.”

As I continued reading, I was even more startled when the issue of freedom emerged in a quote from Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith: “I like to say we’re in the freedom business: you can do your thing without the cost and hassle of ownership. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to get that. I don’t think of myself as the guy waving the Greenpeace flag. I think of myself as a smart consumer.”

His comment highlights the fact that freedom is, in this way at least, a matter of perception. How have I come to equate freedom with being encumbered by a costly, 3,000-pound, environmentally damaging machine that’s used by pretty much just one person?

So I’m finally ready to kick my car-ownership habit. But if you’re not quite ready to do the same, well, I’ve got a ’97 Honda Civic hatchback, for which I have undue affection, that needs a good home. It’s got 80,000 miles on it with a manual transmission. Color: Amethyst Pearl (that’s purple).

Section: Neighborhoods, Opinion

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  1. March 9, 2009 at 11:31 pm | permalink

    Great article, and a great service. I’ve used Zipcars for a half dozen or so trips over the past couple of months. We haven’t ditched our car yet, but Zipcars have allowed us to avoid purchasing another car.

    Unfortunately, the process is far less convenient for me than your 10 minute walk, since we live and work in Ypsilanti. However, with Eastern Michigan University close by, we’re hoping that ZipCar and EMU will see fit to join forces as well to bring their cars closer to home for us….

  2. March 10, 2009 at 7:44 am | permalink

    Thanks for helping to publicize ZIPCAR, Mary. I joined it on principal when it first came to Ann Arbor but haven’t yet used it. On several trips to other cities, I was comforted to know that I could walk a few blocks from my hotel and pick up a ZIPCAR rather than spending big bucks on cabs. Only a few score cities offer ZIPCARS so far but they are a growing factor in choosing where to visit.

  3. By jcp2
    March 10, 2009 at 9:03 am | permalink

    It’s a great idea, and in a different situation, I would totally use it. However, as it stands, I have a family with two young children, work near DTW, and live by the Target on Ann Arbor-Saline Road, so we use two cars. I look at my car as part of the cost of being able to do what I do for a living.

  4. March 10, 2009 at 9:39 am | permalink

    Okay, how much to you trust the public transportation system to meet your needs? Do they ever go on strike, raise rates, change routes, and etc.? And with out a car you really are screwed unless you wanna go back to being 14 and having to bum rides from all the time. A alternative fueled car is a better choice IMHO.

  5. By Ryan Munson
    March 10, 2009 at 9:42 am | permalink

    At the least, I guess I’d try commuting if I couldn’t get within walking/biking distance of a zip.

  6. By Joan Lowenstein
    March 10, 2009 at 10:21 am | permalink

    The ability to just get rid of one car in a household makes a difference. Most residential projects proposed for downtown allot one parking place per residence. Being able to function with one or no cars makes it much more likely that people will want to live downtown.

  7. By Tom Brandt
    March 10, 2009 at 11:25 am | permalink


    and how often is your car in the shop, forcing you to bum rides? Every mode has its cost/benefits.

  8. By Nancy Shore
    March 10, 2009 at 12:30 pm | permalink

    Thanks so much for writing this article. We are really excited to have some Zipcars in the downtown. As you suggested, Zipcars are going to give people more choices in how they choose to get around and how they choose to spend their money. As some of the comments above suggest, Zipcar is not going to solve everyone’s problems, but it will sure help a lot of people who need the flexibility of a car, but who don’t want to have to own one.

    In terms of the money thing, I think that’s something that many people should be thinking about. How much money could you save if you gave up one car and used a Zipcar instead? That alone might be a good sell. Especially since the parking for the Zipcars is free both on campus and downtown.

    Thanks again for your coverage! And if anyone wants to check out the new downtown Zipcars, we are having a launch event on March 17th at 10:30am at the Palio Parking Lot. Green cupcakes and green tea for all!

  9. By Nancy Shore
    March 10, 2009 at 2:38 pm | permalink

    Hey all,
    Just to clarify. When I said that Zipcar Parking is free, I mean that is is free in the designated spaces for Zipcar. You’ll still have to pay to park a Zipcar if you park it in a non-Zipcar designated location (e.g. a normal spot).

  10. March 10, 2009 at 3:32 pm | permalink

    I love the idea. I lived in Washington, DC for ten years with three kids and no car. In fact, we had two highly desirable parking spaces we rented. Admittedly, though, I worry about emergencies, times when I might really, really NEED a car and be too rattled to plan ahead. Also a question about insurance: if I were to have an accident while driving a zipcar, who would pay under no fault laws?

  11. March 10, 2009 at 5:55 pm | permalink

    Check out the FAQs page on the Zipcar Site to answer your insurance question here.

  12. By Steve Bean
    March 11, 2009 at 6:07 pm | permalink

    I’m considering joining Zipcar. It’ll be mostly a financial decision, but I may take that step (not a leap) sooner just to support it and boost its availability for others.

    In the meantime, I hereby offer free rides to anyone who is near downtown (or west side), car-free, a Zipcar member, or otherwise car-limited and in a bind (e.g., the Zipcar is in use by another member.) The catch? I have a two-seater, so I can only take one person, and I get to say “no can do”, so it’s far from a guaranteed ride. Also, you need to know how to contact me.

    Why the offer? I want to facilitate the transition for others (who I know) if at all possible, and if I’m going to continue to own a car, it might as well get more use than the few thousand miles per year that I put on it.

  13. By Jennifer Santi Hall
    March 12, 2009 at 2:17 pm | permalink

    Mary, thanks for this article on Zipcars! I’m very excited they are coming to downtown and so happy that the DDA is helping to make that happen. It’s a very small investment on DDA’s part to encourage people to leave their cars at home (or not to have them at all).

    You asked for information on how people with families manage without cars and I’d like to share my family’s experiences. Before kids we used to live in Minneapolis and rarely drove our one car – we got around quite easily on bus or bike. Now, we are a family of 4 and we still have one car. My husband is a professor at Wayne State and commutes to Detroit several times per week. I am a stay-at-home mom (but active on city boards and commissions which take me downtown several times each week). My two kids are ages 4.5 and 2 years. We live about 1.5 miles to downtown.

    Managing with one car requires planning ahead, creative thinking, and commitment – but it hasn’t been difficult and our family budget benefits greatly from our choice. We chose to live within walking/biking distance of downtown. We chose a preschool for our daughter that was downtown. We focus a lot of our activities downtown (YMCA, library, etc.) My husband used to work in downtown Ann Arbor, but several years ago started teaching at Wayne and made things much trickier. Currently, my husband takes the Amtrak train to/from Detroit several times each week. This is not an ideal mode of transportation as the train doesn’t go to/from Detroit when workers would need it to go there. To do this requires an overnight stay in Detroit … we long for the day that the train becomes a real commuter service. But, in the meantime, he gets lots of work done on the train and leaves me with our car to get around with the kids. I use it more often that I want to admit, but juggling preschool, meetings, errands, etc. in the winter is tough. Warmer weather and safer roads make biking much easier for us. The bus is also an option from our house, but not one that we use too frequently because of the schedule.

    Before we figured out the train … Noah needed the car several times a week and I had to figure out how to get around without one. It was much easier with only one child at home (she wasn’t in school yet). We planned our errands and appointments for days when we had the car or we walked downtown. If we needed a car (last minute trip to the doctor or it was raining) we would call a cab. This was much less expensive than owning a second car.

    Will we use Zipcar? I think we will, but I’m not yet sure how to fit it into our family’s needs. It’s pretty great to have one more option to add to our list.

  14. By Jeff Gaynor
    March 12, 2009 at 9:30 pm | permalink

    When I decided to not replace my rusted out ’93 Ford Escort in January, 2008, I checked out Zipcar. To date though I haven’t needed it, as I can get to work and elsewhere mostly by bus (very dependable here in Ann Arbor) and bike (not as much a stretch as most people think; I’m no young bunny). No heroics here; my wife firmly holds on to her car, and in fact keeps me honest by threatening to buy a 2nd car if I ask to borrow hers too often, perhaps once a month, I figure. She does allow me to drive our teens here and there or to Krogers for more than my bike will hold (4+ shopping bags). I have used Enterprise for trips to Detroit – drat the train or bus there doesn’t run at convenient times.

    I also want to emphasize the savings by going from 2 cars to one; financially to peace of mind, from insurance to gas to maintenance, to all the work and anxiety you let go of every time you do not take your own car. Or maybe you enjoy scraping ice and sweeping snow off the car all winter, ad nauseum. I prefer walking 2 blocks and waiting 1 to 5 minutes for the bus, on which I have time to read and relax. I prefer riding my bike through the fresh air, pacing myself, rather than getting caught up in traffic snarls. Going in, I thought I’d be willing to sacrifice not having a car. I haven’t yet found out what I’ve had to sacrifice, other than my insurance payment. Oh, I do make it a point to stop in at the Firestone dealer and say hi to my old friends there, still twice a year. I just walk out with my wallet full now.

    So Mary, best of luck – and whether you keep your car or not (I do recognize this long column as a thinly veiled ‘car for sale’ ad) – I admire you using it less and less even though you have it available.

  15. March 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm | permalink

    Looking forward to more Zipcar locations, the savings for people and planet will be tremendous. Currently the amount of time spent walking to get the Zipcar is on average with the amount of time to walk to my destinations.

    I’ve added to my calendar, invited my co-workers, to the March 17th Palio Zipcar to get more informed. Owning only one car in our family, I rely on the getDowntown program. The program provides me access to annual bus pass for $5 (paid by my employer). After my ten minute bus ride downtown from North Campus, I can usually walk to meetings on campus or gain a ride from my colleagues. My office could probably be persuaded to buy-in to the Zipcar once the location/flexibility increases.

    Finally, removing the one remaining car from our family wouldn’t work because the transportation infrastructure hasn’t arrived to travel outside of Ann Arbor. We really need a fully functional subway system for SE metropolitan Michigan.

  16. March 17, 2009 at 10:18 am | permalink


    We went to see the zip car exhibit this morning at the Palio parking lot, and I got you one of their cute little black tote bags (in case you did not get there early enough to capture one). There is also a coupon for $50 off and the code to use happens to be “Anna09″, which is quite a coincidence. Naturally, I talked up the fact that I found out about this event in “The Ann Arbor Chronicle” while visiting with the sales people there.