Why No One You Know is Driving his Own Car This Weekend

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Rental cars have been a mainstay of American travel for the last century. Early rentals, within a few years of the Model T's appearance, cost 10 cents a mile. Considering inflation, today's average of about $60 a day isn't such a bad uptick for customers of the Big Eight: Alamo, Avis, Dollar, Enterprise, Fox, Hertz, National, or Thrifty—all at a far-flung airport or strip-mall not-so-near-you.

But, the car rental industry has moved deep into many American cities, where car ownership is less of a necessity with multi-modal transit options. Plus, the hassle of parking restrictions, tickets, higher insurance premiums and minor dings also makes car ownership less desirable.

"I don't see car ownership being a lot more expensive, necessarily, in the city, than elsewhere," says Chris Brown, Executive Editor of Auto Rental News, "but, psychologically, there is a real movement to seek specific transportation forms for specific purposes in specific locations rather than the all-purpose car."

In this crowd-sourced economy, membership-based "car-sharing" options like the ubiquitous Zipcar, have combined the option of renting with the convenience of proximity, targeting urbanites with particular needs—like moving that EXPEDIT bookshelf you just bought on Craigslist. "Share" sounds a little more, shall we say, crafty or conscientious than the corporate-sounding "rental." To clarify: you are renting a Zipcar for a fee—not borrowing it or sharing it.

Nomenclature aside, Zipcar places its vehicles within spitting distance of the consumer's house or apartment at a designated parking spot or terminal (similar to bike share programs), and governs the whole transaction with a web and app interface.

Zipcar started in Cambridge, Mass. in 2000, spread to Washington, D.C. in 2001, and New York in 2002. By decade's end, its cars could be found in a dozen other American cities (after mergers with Seattle-based Flexcar as well as London-based Streetcar) and doubled its membership rolls.