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August 28, 2012

Car Sharing, Ride Sharing Becoming More Popular

TrafficThe Millennial generation just isn’t buying cars like they "should" be.  Or at least, that's the conclusion the auto industry has come to in the face of surprisingly low sales numbers among people age 21 to 34.  This age group made just 27% of all car purchases in 2010, down from a high of 38% in 1985. Though there's been debate about whether these declining sales are the result of the recession or of a shift in consumer preferences, it’s clear that Millennials are moving away from car ownership.

So if young people aren't buying cars, how exactly are they getting around? Sure, they're using transit and walking more, but they’re also looking for new transportation choices. A few weeks ago I wrote about how bike shares are springing up all over the country, but new car sharing and ride sharing programs are making it even easier to get around without owning a car. Car sharing services allow users to rent a car for a matter of hours or days, while new high-tech ride sharing programs match up users with similar destinations so they can carpool. Check out this map to find programs in your area.

The internet and smart phones are making ride sharing more convenient and safer than ever before.  Zimride refers to itself as "non-creepy hitchhiking," but it's far more sophisticated than that. Zimride's website matches up riders and drivers in several cities and dozens of universities around the country.  Drivers decide the date and destination and set a price for seats in their car, and prospective passengers choose the ride that best meets their needs.

Zimride's car sharing route between Los Angeles and San Francisco was so popular that the company decided to set up another route between Washington, D.C. and New York City, and plans to expand further in the near future. Zimride performs background checks and links to users' Facebook profiles to make riders and drivers feel more comfortable with each other.  Since its launch in 2007 Zimride's 360,000 users have shared over 200 million miles, helping to reduce emissions, congestion, and oil use.

But what if you're the spontaneous type and don't want to plan your trips days in advance? Companies like WeGo are designing apps that allow users to find rides in real time. WeGo is a ride sharing service that currently operates in Sonoma County, California and plans to expand into the surrounding counties in the next year. The smart phone app allows users to post when they need a ride or have extra space in their car and matches up users traveling along the same route.

To offset driving costs, WeGo has riders pay drivers a small amount, around $1 for the first mile and just $0.20 for each mile thereafter. And as if a low-cost ride wasn’t enough of an incentive, each shared ride also helps users earn points which can be redeemed for gift cards to local businesses and national retailers. Real-time, peer-to-peer ride sharing is a convenient way to get where you need to be while reducing the number of vehicles on the road. 

NuRide facilitates ride sharing, but also encourages walking, biking, and taking public transit by awarding points for every trip recorded that was not made in a single-occupancy vehicle. Miles traveled by walking, biking, taking transit and carpooling add up into points which can be redeemed as coupons for local businesses.

NuRide currently has programs in Washington, D.C., Houston, Texas, and a handful of other cities and states where it has partnered with the local department of transportation to encourage methods of transportation other than single-occupancy vehicles. Local businesses who want to encourage these types of trips offer discounts for NuRide users who accumulate a certain level of points. Since NuRide began in 2003, its 71,000 members have taken more than 8.6 million shared rides.

Probably the best-known car sharing program is Zipcar, which has cars in over 150 cities and universities across the country.  Zipcar started small in 2000, but because of its popularity it now has thousands of vehicles available for short-term rentals across the country. Zipcar members can reserve a car for a few hours or for a few days for as little as $8 per hour, a price which includes all gas and maintenance costs. When they are done, members simply return the car to its parking space and it's ready for the next user. Zipcar estimates that each car in its fleet takes 20 cars off the road, helping to relieve congested roadways across the country.

However, Zipcar is far from the only car sharing program out there. Many local communities have set up their own non-profit car sharing programs, which often have lower fees than Zipcar. Carshare Vermont is a non-profit organization with 10 cars available for community members to check out at locations throughout the city of Burlington. A handful of cities like Buffalo, San Francisco, Madison, and Denver have similar non-profit car sharing organizations of various sizes.  Each of these organizations helps to increase local transportation choices while reducing the need for car ownership.

The average car is parked about 90% of the time, but Relay Rides wants to change that. Through their website, car owners control when their cars are available to rent, and prospective drivers can reserve any car in the area with the click of a button. Relay Rides has recently partnered with OnStar to eliminate the problem of handing off keys, allowing drivers to book an available OnStar-enabled car and have it automatically and almost instantly unlocked. Low rental rates for users and the ability to make $600 or more each month for car owners makes peer to peer car sharing an attractive option for both parties.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that Americans take roughly 1.1 billion trips per day, about 78% of which are made in single-occupancy vehicles. These cars clog our nation's roadways and making so many trips so inefficiently keeps us heavily dependent on oil. Sharing rides is an efficient way to reduce congestion and limit greenhouse gas emissions while providing a convenient way to travel. Car sharing encourages users to walk or use transit for short trips, but provides the convenience of owning a car when necessary. Both of these methods allow people to travel long and short distances without owning their own car, which helps create more transportation choices throughout the country. 

--Erin Gustafson, Sierra Club Green Transportation

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