- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

A growing car-rental company is hoping to put the brakes on owning a vehicle in the District.

Zipcar is a short-term car-rental company — rentals last between a few hours and three days — that targets car-less city dwellers. The $7.50 to $12.50 charge per hour, or a flat fee for day trips, includes insurance, parking, gas and maintenance fees.

“For most people in an urban area — and it might be more in D.C. — the monthly cost of owning a vehicle is $700,” said Gabe Klein, regional vice president for Zipcar in Washington. “At Zipcar, the typical monthly bill is 15 hours of driving, which comes out to $100 to $150.”

The Boston company, founded in 1999, has grown to 20,000 national members and 5,000 Washington members, Mr. Klein said. The cars can be found zipping around New York and New Jersey, Boston, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which heavily lobbied the company to have a fleet there, Mr. Klein said.

In the District, Sandra Whipp and her staff at architecture firm RTKL Associates use Zipcar for business and, sometimes, personal errands.

When Ms. Whipp, the business manager at RTKL, wanted to run an errand in Pentagon City, she placed a reservation for a Mini Cooper at Zipcar.com. She took a few minutes to locate the alley where the car was parked, but the car immediately unlocked when she swiped her membership card in front of it. She drove to Pentagon City and back to downtown for $12.

Zipcars also are convenient for her office staff members, some of whom don’t own vehicles and have to make unplanned trips to clients.

Ninety Zipcars are parked in company-owned or sponsor-owned parking spaces throughout the metro area. The cars must be returned to their spaces.

Five of the cars are near 18th and California streets NW,just down the street from L’Enfant Cafe-Bar, which Christopher Lynch co-owns. When he moved from Manhattan to the District a year-and-a-half ago, he didn’t have a car. He found the cars, also parked near his home, to be more convenient than taxis or the Metro.

Mr. Lynch figures a car, insurance and a parking spot would cost him about $650 per month. He typically spends about $200 to $300 per month on Zipcars, which he drives about three times a week. He likes having the option of renting onefor a road trip, too.

“My only complaint is that they’ve become too popular,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t have the cars available.”

Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle have 20 Zipcars lining their streets, alleys and parking garages. The D.C. fleet consists of diverse and trendy cars, including the Mini Cooper, Ford Focus, Toyota Matrix and Prius, BMW 325 and the Volkswagen Beetle, according to Zipcar’s reservation Web site.

The District’s Zipcars are parked on Capitol Hill — where the number of cars doubled in the past year, Cathedral Heights, Columbia Heights, Cleveland Park, Farragut Park and Logan Circle. Outside the city, Zipcars are in Greenbelt, Takoma Park and Silver Spring, and Alexandria and Arlington. Zipcars also are at the local universities.

The most expensive car in the fleet is the BMW 325, which costs $12.50 per hour. At the low end is the Ford Focus at $7.50 per hour.

Jorge Bernal, a designer at RTKL Associates, said driving the cars has been like going for test drives at car dealerships.

“I think it’s a great marketing tool for somebody who might be in the car market in a couple years,” said Mr. Bernal, who uses the cars about once a week.

Becoming a Zipcar member requires a $25 application fee and choosing a driving plan, depending on how often a driver intends to rent the cars. Plans range from $25 per month plus rentals to $250 worth of driving per month. Drivers also are charged 18 cents per mile after the first 125 miles of their reservation.

“Hundreds of reservations can be made in a day,” said Mr. Klein, who did not have exact figures. “A car can go out four times a day.”

Zipcar’s revenue has increased 10 percent in the past 12 months, Mr. Klein said, but he declined to reveal specifics.

Zipcar is based on similar companies in Europe. In the District, Zipcar competes with Flexcar, which calls itself a car-sharing program, but operates under a similar marketing model.

Also founded in 1999, Flexcar highlights its locations near the end of Metro lines as extensions of public transportation. Flexcar also operates in Denver, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Washington state, but the District is the only city in which both Zipcar and Flexcar operate.

While Zipcar members must be at least 21 years old, universities are a good market for Zipcar because both students and faculty members use the service. The company is expanding to Wellesley College, outside of Boston, this fall. Mr. Klein said Zipcar has plans to expand in the District in the next two months, and to new cities, but declined to give specifics.

Zipcar has a partnership with Arlington Countyfor subsidized on-street parking spaces, which the company hopes will encourage drivers to use the cars as extensions of public transportation. Zipcar is planning a similar proposal for the District Department of Transportation.

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