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Twin Cities car sharing grows, driven by concern for finances, environment

Early in 2012, following the breakdown of their car, North Loop residents Joe Laha and his girlfriend Bridget Kromhout made the decision to give car sharing a try. Laha has used his bike to commute to work in downtown Minneapolis for years, and Kromhout has relied on public transit for her daily commute.

“We had no desire to go out and buy a car,” said Laha. And so far, car sharing has worked out pretty well for the couple, who are in their late thirties. There are four HOURCARS within a mile of their condo and they can usually access a vehicle within 15 minutes.

Laha and Kromhout have saved thousands of dollars; their HOURCAR membership fees cover the cost of gas, insurance, and vehicle maintenance. Rates per individual vary from $8 per hour with a $5 monthly membership to $6 per hour with a $15 monthly membership. Twenty-five cents per mile driven is calculated on top of that.

“The car sharing industry is here to stay and has huge potential for growth,” said Christopher Bineham, program manager at HOURCAR. In fact, his organization is the recipient of grants from the McKnight Foundation and Central Corridor Funders Collaborative totaling $500,000. The money will be used to grow HOURCAR’s fleet to over 70 cars within the year, most of which will be located along the Central Corridor. “The Cities are committed to expanding options for people to get around in a variety of ways—car sharing is a very important piece of that,” he added.

HOURCAR was started in June 2005 by Neighborhood Energy Connection, a non-profit in St. Paul, with just 13 cars and a couple dozen enthusiastic members. They have grown steadily to their current fleet of 39 cars and more than 1,900 members. Most of their members are professionals in their twenties and thirties, but they also see use by one-car families needing that occasional second car, empty nesters who are downsizing, as well as organizations and businesses with corporate accounts.

Most members are motivated by the financial savings, the convenience, and the opportunity to lessen their environmental impact, said Bineham. That is certainly true for Laha and Kromhout, although they recognize that car sharing might not work for everyone, families with young children, for example, or those who need a car for their daily work commute.

Nevertheless, car sharing is an industry on the rise across the United States, and globally. Zipcar, with corporate headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, claims to be the largest car sharing company in the world. Boasting more than 777,000 members, they have cars on college campuses in the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the University of Minnesota since 2011. They have a current fleet of eight cars across the Twin Cities campus.

The college-age demographic has been particularly receptive to the idea of car sharing; they tend to be very conscious of finances and the environment. But Zipcar’s corporate vision doesn’t stop there, according to a company representative. They have just started working with the car rental company Avis, offering car-sharing services at New York City area airports. If the collaboration is successful, it could be a great area of growth for Zipcar.

According to Bineham, even Wall Street has started paying attention to the car sharing industry.

Reactions among Laha and Kromhout’s friends and acquaintances about giving up car ownership were evenly split between “that’s cool!” and “you’re nuts!” Living in a very car-dependent society, many people just can’t imagine life without a car, but car sharing is all about finding alternative ways of dealing with urban transit and mobility.

On a Thursday evening, the couple sits down at the HOURCAR website to plan out their errands and family outings for the upcoming weekend. “With a little bit of advance planning there’s no reason we can’t make this work indefinitely,” said Laha. He challenges car owners to try car sharing for a month or two to see how it works for them: “You don’t need your car as much as you think you do.”

Bineham agrees. His vision for the future of car sharing? “The sky’s the limit.”

By Anna Burnstein, TC Daily Planet