- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

At 85, architect Bill Conklin of the District’s Penn Quarter freely admits he and his wife, Barbara, are oldsters. He also is a Zipster — a member of a loosely defined family of people who rent cars by the hour or day from the Zipcar car-sharing company.

A traditional car-rental firm would be hard-pressed to suggest customers are members of a family or community — another word often loosely employed in the commercial sphere. Zipcar, by contrast, runs almost entirely on computers that handle transactions for cars kept on the street in neighborhood locations. There is no haggling at a counter over insurance rates and conditions, no arguments over mileage and gas. (A controlled credit card comes with each vehicle.) Impersonality rules.

However, rules state that cars are to be kept clean and with at least a quarter-tank of gas without anyone checking. The client’s conscience is key. How the company ensures this happens is a study in how to make a social virtue out of a financial necessity.

The Conklins aren’t typical Zipsters because two-thirds of Zipcar customers are 21 to 35 years old, but, like the majority, they live in a city and rent different models for different occasions, such as grocery shopping or buying plants for their terrace. On longer trips, for economic reasons, they use conventional car-rental firms.

“I don’t know if I feel close to other people who use them,” Mr. Conklin says, “but I think there is a sense that once you share something, you are part of a community. You take care of your part. You think, ‘Let’s keep it clean and decent so the next time I use it, it will be gassed up.’ ”

There is a chatty (members only) Zipcar newsletter, of course, and a lot of reaching out in ways that appeal to Zipsters’ demographics. An open-bar party for members at Rocket Bar on Seventh Street Northwest on one of the winter’s iciest nights attracted 100 or more. A Valentine’s Day competition for members to describe their “dream date” promised free short-term car rental as the prize.

Tearsa Coates, 32, won the valentine promotion, so she quickly got her husband to change plans for eating out in the District to take a day trip to the Eastern Shore instead.

Her husband has a car, but it is “raggedy,” she says. They use Zipcar when they need reliable transportation, such as when they drove to Philadelphia for her mother’s birthday — a party at a bowling alley.

When she moved to the District’s Dupont Circle two years ago, she says, she “quickly realized the shopping I wanted to do didn’t happen downtown.” Zipcar is “useful” for her for that reason, she says, “and for the culture” of the youthful Zipster community.

That indefinable thing, the culture of belonging, can strike at any age. Kelley Coyner, an employee of the University of Maryland Law School, joined up when moving back to the Washington area from Bolivia with her husband, Tim Sears, a Foreign Service officer, and their three children.

With the children in three different schools, Zipcar “fills in the gaps,” she says.

Another company contest invited children to submit names for the cars they use regularly. Ms. Coyner’s youngsters came up with Monkey Three for a Mazda Matrix, Betty for the Honda Element and Serge for a Volvo.

“The kids now take better care of their own car,” Ms. Coyner volunteers. The one problem with renting is “the car seat issue,” when local laws require having a car seat for young children in any automobile.

Wayne McCrimmon of Oxon Hill recently brought his newborn son home from the hospital courtesy of his membership, which he also used for his first wedding anniversary, when he and his wife went to the restaurant they had enjoyed the day they married.

Cheryl MacKay of Capitol Hill met Corey Norton, who is now her husband, at a party on a night when he had reserved a Zipcar.

“He had only rented for a limited amount of time, and he kept excusing himself to go extend the time,” she recalls. “I thought he was trying to lose me. At the end of the night, he offered me a ride home. I then realized how hip and cool he was.”

When it came time to plan a wedding a year or two later, they thought it would be fun to get the same car. That particular vehicle had been retired from service, but Zipcar found a similar model and gave them a free day’s use. Neither Ms. MacKay nor Mr. Norton owned a car when they met, but now the lawyer couple has a secondhand model she bought on the cheap from her brother. They consider Zipcar their “second.”

Even out-of-town commuters have joined the “family” on a short-term basis. New Jersey resident Ari Hirt, for instance, works in real estate in New York and was coming to the District frequently when, in 2004, his mother died. As an observant Jew, he says he needed to be at a synagogue twice daily to say kaddish, the memorial service for the dead that requires a quorum — a certain number of people to be present.

He was told one time that the only service available with a quorum was in Silver Spring — and the Zipcar rental allowed him to get back and forth without worrying about finding a taxi when he needed one.

“I used it one or two days a week and never had a problem for all those months I needed it,” he says.

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