Wheels turning

1012 WheelsTurning 01Portland’s longtime zest for going carless has helped boost the car-sharing industry…and there’s still room to grow.

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1012 WheelsTurning 01Back in 1998, when the Pearl District was still transitioning from Drugstore Cowboy to art-gallery central, Dave Brook launched CarShare Portland. It was the first car-sharing business in the country — only Switzerland and Germany had similar programs at the time — and it had exactly one car to share.

The CarShare Portland fleet quickly grew to 20 cars to meet demand, and the idea of sharing a car rather than owning one seemed viable. So much so that in the year 2000 Zipcar was started in Boston and FlexCar in Seattle. FlexCar bought CarShare Portland not long after, and then Zipcar merged with FlexCar in 2007, taking the zippier name.

From 2007 to 2011, Zipcar grew from 140,000 members to 673,000, with revenue in 2011 totaling $242 million and offices in two dozen cities in North America and the United Kingdom (Zipcar does not release city-specific numbers, only global totals). So from its humble Portland beginnings, a worldwide car-sharing industry began — a market that is projected to reach $10 billion globally, according to industry insiders.

There’s still room for growth, even in car sharing’s hometown. Zipcar has 250 cars (30 different makes and models) in its Portland fleet at 175 designated parking spaces throughout the city. “The active lifestyle in Portland resulted in some of our cars having bike racks or forest passes included,” says Jeremy Nelson, general manager of Zipcar’s Portland office. “A lot of our Portland members also gravitate toward trucks.”

To further meet that demand, in August the company rolled out its Zipvan service in Portland, which gives members access to full-size cargo vans. Besides helping individuals move bulky items, small businesses can use the vans to make deliveries.

Members of Zipcar generally take the vehicles for longer periods of time, likely because of the pricing structure. In addition to the either annual or monthly membership fees, there is an hourly rate, a day rate and a reduced overnight rate. Insurance and fuel are included with membership, and parking is paid for only in Zipcar spaces. Portland’s decades-long reputation for alternative transportation is holding up, thanks in part to car sharing. In August Katie Stafford, communications manager of Car2Go, sat in on a discussion of future cities in Washington, D.C., which included transportation infrastructure. Portland was mentioned as having the best practices in this arena, in the same breath as Paris. “Portland understands urban planning really well,” says Stafford. She says car sharing is one part of the transportation puzzle in an urban setting, along with everything from buses to walking.

Car2Go, a Daimler company, is the newest of the car-sharing services, having its start in Ulm, Germany, and Austin, Texas, in 2008. It opened its Portland service in April 2012 and had already signed up 6,000 members by July that same year. To compare, Stafford says the Washington, D.C., office opened one week before the Portland office, and it had 8,500 members by August in a metro area with more than twice the population. She acknowledged that Portland’s history with car sharing, particularly Zipcar, paved the way for Car2Go’s early growth.


1012 WheelsTurning 02If you’ve been in downtown Portland since April, you’ve almost certainly seen the blue-and-white Car2Go Smart Fortwos tooling along the city streets. Unlike Zipcar, Car2Go only has one model, and all 250 in the initial fleet were identical. Just as Zipcar responded to the Portland market’s need for cargo carrying with Zipvan, Car2Go has responded to the city’s dedication to electric-vehicle infrastructure by adding 25 all-electric Smart Fortwos to the local fleet. These look just like the gasoline-powered cars, but they plug in rather than fuel up.


Car2Go members use an iPhone app or the website to locate and reserve a car, then hold up their membership card to the windshield to unlock the doors. Once on the clock in a Car2Go vehicle, you pay 38 cents per minute to run errands or avoid a downpour. When you’re done, park it anywhere and get out. No need to return it to a particular parking space or a lot; wherever you leave it is where the next driver will find it. As with Zipcar, fuel and insurance are included. Stafford says that people take shorter trips in Car2Go vehicles than they do in Zipcars or traditional rental cars, with the average being 30 minutes or less.

Two car-sharing services in a metro area with a population of just over 2 million seems like it’s probably enough (not to mention the peer-to-peer car sharing service Getaround), but Enterprise Holdings, the rental-car giant, wants to get its hand in the game, too. Renting a vehicle for more than an overnight (which, through Zipcar, lasts from after work to the next morning) means a more traditional car rental. “We do not view car sharing as an alternative to car rental but as a natural extension of our extensive neighborhood network of rental locations,” says Ned Maniscalco, a spokesman for Enterprise Holdings, via email.

Oregon’s college students may be more familiar with the company’s WeCar by Enterprise service, which has been operating in Eugene, Springfield and Corvallis since 2008. Maniscalco says the service is coming to Portland soon.

Zipcar, Car2Go and Enterprise Holdings all see growth potential in businesses and their employees. Companies can get corporate memberships for their workers to use. Employees who travel can also use their Zipcar or Car2Go memberships in other cities. Car2Go members in Portland can drive Smart Fortwos in North American cities where the service has offices, and Zipcar members can reserve a car in any city where the company operates around the globe, including the U.K. and Spain.

With all these options, can this many car-sharing services survive in the city where they were born? All three companies say yes. They agree that Mel Wells, a carless Portlander who works downtown for a nonprofit, is a typical user. She mixes and matches her Car2Go and Zipcar memberships, TriMet tickets and trusty bike to fit her needs. Some months, she uses only her bike, but when she moved over the summer, she used Zipcar for trucks and SUVs. She finds that a Car2Go vehicle is almost always closer than a Zipcar, which works better for client meetings or running errands.

“These services work best for people who are comfortable in an urban setting,” says Stafford. People like Wells, who wants access to everything a city has to offer without having to own a car.

Kristen Hall-Geisler is a Portland journalist who covers the car industry for state and national publications. She can be reached at [email protected].

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