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Urbanism's Rental Car Problem

The New York Times has a nice piece about the growing trend of car-free existence. This is a hot topic, and my opinions have been expressed many times here. But look, I understand that it's not something for everybody. From the article:
Millions of people face long commutes, along with ferrying kids to school and activities, and countless errands that cannot be conducted via bus or streetcar. Beyond that, there will always be a group of customers who want the latest, hottest, sexiest car that automakers put on the market.
So maybe you have a family or you locked yourself into a long commute by buying a house far away from work that you can't sell and your mortgage is underwater. Yeah.. those people are pretty much stuck, I guess. But what is one group that (in general) has the most flexibility, is least likely to have kids, and is most likely to be cash-strapped? New college graduates.

But there is the serious problem: many of those same young people, even if they are sympathetic to the benefits of not owning a car and live in a walkable urban area, they might buy a car anyway, simply for those "once in a while" trips that people tend to like. The obvious answer to this is to utilize rental cars for such occasions. Most of the non-airport rental agencies run deep discounts for weekend rentals to get their vehicles off the lot. And if you're only renting for one or two weekends per month, the cost should be entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, the big rental companies either won't rent to anyone under 25, or they'll rent to them at some exorbitant price.

(from flickr user Henderson Images)

If I wanted a car from my local Enterprise for next coming weekend, I could get a compact from Friday morning to Monday morning for $52.34 (including all taxes and fees) if I was over 25. But I'm not, so my rate would actually be $133.15. That's not a good deal and probably not worth it. Car-sharing services like Zipcar do rent to people 21 and up, but those rentals are best for short trips in town, not so much for long trips to other cities.

We need to think about a solution. Whether it's a certificate that good drivers acquire get based on past records or some ability for urban dwellers to socialize the risk that car rental companies pass on to individual customers. Rental cars are great tools for those over 25 who live car free; it would be nice to extend that privilege to people a little younger.


Jeramey Jannene said…
Good issue to discuss, as rental cars are an important piece of transitioning to going car free.

You address what I think is an usual problem, the need to have a car for multiple days. ZipCar would ask 60/day for that (I believe universal in all markets). Obviously that would add up, but if you need a car it's available.

Rental car company policies are a bit annoying, but I believe there is a work-around. Someone over 25 can rent the car, and pay a small fee to have you included as a driver.

Either way, if you're under 25 and want a car for multiple days it's going to cost you money. The only way to fix that is to hope rental car companies change their policies at some point.

But, again I think your scenario is not the norm. If I need a car to go to the mall, I can use Zipcar. If I need a car to go to a suburb for random event X, I can use Zipcar. Zipcar's ease of use is amazing, I can reserve the car on my iPhone, walk up to it, get in, and drive away. That would have been a pipe dream just a few years ago.

Zipcar provides an amazing service for the odds and ends trip to a non-transit served area.

If someone needs a car for multiple days in a row that's not really car-free or car-lite living is it?

Good issue to discuss, but I think Zipcar has things covered well for odds and ends trips. Their coverage in Milwaukee is good, and hopefully will get better with time (and Chicago's looks to be amazing). How is it in Cleveland?
Will said…
Jeramey and Rob,

Good comments.

Cleveland has a membership-based car sharing service similar to zipcar. It's a small local company, called City Wheels. Unfortunately, 3 of their cars are located on the East Side of town. As a west-sider [not sure where Rob is living], I would have to take a 30+ min. bus and transit ride to access one of their cars.

As far as I know, City Wheels does not offer a plan for the entire weekend. They do have an all-day plan for a car [$55 or $65 per day, depending on your rate plan, and includes 125 miles, and gasoline].

Services like City Wheels and Zipcar are not as focused (and their pricing and policies reflect it) to serve customers looking for a single reservation for multiple, consecutive days than customers reserving a car for a few hours at a time or, up to one day.

I agree with Jeramey whether your scenario (of renting a car for an entire weekend once a month) is realistic for someone who is car-free.


(full disclosure: I worked for City Wheels for the summer of 2008)
Rob Pitingolo said…
I think the reason why local car-sharing works so well for the reasons you guys describe is also the reason it doesn't for longer-term rentals.

By pricing it at the margin, car-sharing gives people incentive to be efficient in their driving: don't borrow the car for 3 hours when you only need it for 2. Don't make two big shopping trips per week if you can consolidate into one. It also makes it more likely that the vehicles will be there when any one person needs one.

My opinion of car-sharing in Cleveland is that there are simply too few cars available. The closest to where I live (on the east side) is still about 3 miles away. Not entirely unreasonable, but not convenient enough to be obviously worthwhile.
HHF3 said…
I think CityWheels rents by the day... I've only used it for those around-town trips that I just can't pull off on the bus/rapid so I can't really say.
Rob Pitingolo said…
The City Wheels website lists the maximum daily rate at $65, but also says it's not available Friday 5pm - Sunday 5pm. I don't know if that means you can't keep the cars overnight on the weekend or if there is a different rate. Regardless, if we use the $65 ($55 on the value plan) daily max, then borrowing one of their cars for three days would be $195 ($165). At that point, you'd still be better off paying the "under 25" fee to Enterprise.
Jonathan said…
Jeramey, as a thirtysomething with a driver's license and insurance, I am not lining up to rent a car for anyone else's benefit. If that driver gets in an accident, all the hassles are on my head, not theirs.
Elisa M said…
I live in Birmingham AL where there are no zip cars and I recently rented a car for the first time (just went car free)...I paid $230 for 4 days and I am 30! It was ridiculous.
I was not prepared for how much it would cost me, and was quite shocked. (I had to get the supplemental $19 a day insurance b/c I have no car insurance), I am glad you brought this issue up as it is a very real issue for car free converts.
I hope that one day Zip cars are available here, but considering what an anomaly I am I am not holding my breath...
Rob Pitingolo said…
Elisa, sorry to hear about your experience. Here are a few things I can suggest. Having worked in the travel business, I discovered that rental car rates vary wildly depending on the location. Airport locations typically are most expensive, followed by downtown locations. Neighborhood locations tend to be the most inexpensive. Try to check with every location within reasonable distance to see who can offer you the best rate.

Also, consider getting a travelers credit card that provides insurance on rental vehicles. American Express is probably your best bet.

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