Car Sharing Appeals to Cash-Strapped Students

For 21-year-old Syracuse University senior Jaime Sasso, bringing a car to campus just isn't an option. She's from Miami, and the cost of upkeep, combined with the winter weather of upstate New York, make it too hard.

"I don't know how I would be able to keep up a car here since I've never driven in the snow before," she said. "Just the idea of having to clean snow off my car and stuff like that, I don't know if I'd want to do that."

For Sasso, car-sharing is a perfect solution. It's a transportation option that's spreading across the country and onto many college campuses. The idea is simple: You become a member of a car-sharing company and sign up to use a car whenever you need to run some errands.

Saves Money, Time

Sharing cars is cheaper than owning. Rates vary by city and campus, but students at SU pay a $35 annual fee. They are then charged $9 an hour and $65 a day to use the car. Gas, insurance and up to 180 miles are all free. Collisions are covered with a $500 deductible.

Sasso signs up online and uses her magnetic card to enter the car. Inside, she finds the key, and a gas card for filling up. From there, she's charged by the hour, or by day, depending on how long she needs the car. When she's done, she returns it to the parking spot on campus, and it's ready for the next member.

"If I want to go to Wegman's or something, now I have that option because up until now, I was just relying on friends to drive me places," she said. Sasso and her friends were even considering a trip to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. While they decided not to go, she said it was nice knowing she could have.

While there are several smaller car-sharing companies across the country, the largest is Zipcar. The company started back in 2000 and now has more than 250,000 members worldwide.

Zipcar's current fleet comprises 26 makes and models, including Toyota Prius and Tacoma, Honda Element, BMW 3- and 5-series, Volvo S40 and the MINI Cooper.

Student Appeal

In 2002, the company started moving their services to college campuses. Zipcar began at Harvard, and is now on more than 100 campuses. The goal is to appeal to students not allowed to bring vehicles on campus, and to cut down on parking issues many schools face.

While rental companies only allow people over the age of 22 to rent, car-sharing on campuses caters to students as young as 18. And they can use cars on any campus in the country, making this option even more desirable for Sasso.

"I live in Miami and my house is very close to the University of Miami. It's just a couple of blocks," Sasso said. "So when I go home, if I was really in a bind and needed to use a car, I could just go to the University of Miami and get a Zipcar."

And she's always had a car available when she needs it, she said. Accessibility is the goal of many of these car-sharing companies.

"The beauty is that you use it like you would use your own car," said Matt Malloy, Zipcar's vice president for marketing development. "If you are an art student, then you'd use it to run and get some supplies. And if you're just wanting to get away and you're in Miami, you're going to go to the beach."

Other Options

But Zipcar isn't the only option. Hertz recently introduced a car-sharing program in the New York City area, as well as London and Paris.

In Syracuse, the nonprofit CuseCar launched last summer, providing four cars for the campuses of Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

"CuseCar has integrated into the transportation system of the whole community," said Vita DeMarchi, CuseCar's co-founder and director. "It's about mixing up transportation and preventing people from having two or even three cars."

While the mission is similar to Zipcar's, DeMarchi said CuseCar does more research on the specific needs of a community and where each car should be placed. CuseCar also costs the company and users a little more because the cars are all hybrids or run by natural gas. CuseCar's customers pay a $50 yearly fee, and $12 an hour for use of a vehicle.

"We find that, with our members, that they would pay a couple dollars extra to be tied into the green movement," she said.

Pollution solution

Car-sharing actually started in Europe 20 to 30 years ago, Malloy noted. It's based on the idea of decreasing congestion and pollution in cities. Zipcar reports that, for every car-sharing vehicle put on the road, 15 private cars are removed, in turn reducing emissions.

"When you become a car-sharing member, you really start to look at all of your transportation options," Malloy said. "You start biking more, you start walking more, you take public transit more, and you use a car only when you need to use a car." In fact, members say they drive 80 percent less than they did with their private cars, he added.

Use of Zipcars cut down on monthly insurance bills, constant gas charges and upkeep costs, Malloy said. The company estimates members save $600 a month when they switch from private car ownership to car-sharing.

Too Pricey for Some

But for 21-year-old SU senior Kareen Preble, the cost is still too high. Her three roommates all have cars, so she said it's not hard to find a ride to the grocery store or the mall. The only time she needs a ride of her own is to her weekly internship at a local television news station. She said she had looked into Zipcar as an option.

"It seemed like a really cool alternative at first," she said. "But then I looked into more and found out it was expensive for the day, so it was just easier and cheaper to take taxis."

Preble spends about $20 a day on her ride back and forth to her internship. Sometimes she splits that with another student. That's less than what she would pay if she borrowed the shared car for the same amount of time. And she said if she wanted to go to the mall without her roommates, she'd probably just take the bus.

"Zipcar is a good deal if you need it for an hour or two, but when I go to the mall, it's usually for a longer time and it's not worth it to spend $30 or more," Preble said.

For Sasso, it works. She said she doesn't use it often enough for it to be too expensive. And not having to be responsible for her own car is a nice perk, too, she said.

"I have a car at my disposal," Sasso said. "But I don't have to do the whole shovel out the driveway and get the snow off my car and all that fun stuff."