SEATTLE, Feb. 16, 2005 — -- Ron Holden is a freelance writer who lives alone in a studio apartment in downtown Seattle. After a lifetime of buying, insuring and repairing cars, he's very happy not to own one anymore.

But occasionally he needs a car, and he can get one within minutes.

Holden has subscribed to a service called Flexcar. With a few finger strokes on his computer, he can get a car on short notice just about any time he wants.

"You don't need a car 24 hours a day," Holden said. "You only need it when you need it, and if you can be assured of having a car when you need it, why not share cars?"

The program is, in fact, called "car sharing." Holden pays $35 a year to belong to Flexcar. For that, he gets a key card that will activate any one of the cars in the system. When he makes a reservation for a car over the Internet, only his key card will open the car at the reserved time.

Holden is lucky to have a Flexcar parked right behind his building. Once his key card has activated the system, he pulls the key from the glove box, punches his code into the dash, and goes.

Flexcar in Seattle, and another company called Zipcar based in Boston, are betting that car sharing will become big business. The two companies have a combined membership that is approaching 60,000 people in about three dozen cities.

'American Dream of Convenience'

"The American dream really is, you say it's the dream of car ownership; it's really the dream of convenience," says Flexcar's chief executive officer, Lance Ayrault. The company has placed cars in convenient spots all over Seattle; across from the train station, near the ferry terminal, at a Baptist Church, even in a private driveway.

Basic membership is $35 a year. Gas, insurance and maintenance are included in the $9 an hour usage fee.

"[For] people, especially the people that live in and work in densely populated areas, car ownership is becoming extremely expensive, and it's only going to continue so," Ayrault said.

It is somewhat of an honor system. Drivers can't smoke in a Flexcar, and they are expected to keep it clean. Violators are fined.

Zipcar, similar in concept, offers fun cars like BMWs and Mini Coopers to their members in the Boston, New York and Washington metropolitan areas.

"Our goal is to make getting access to a fleet of cars as easy as getting cash from an ATM," said Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith.

These companies were started as profit-making businesses, serving people who can't afford a car or don't want to own one. But they have an environmental appeal. Flexcar says every one of their cars, if well-used, will take six other cars off the road. Zipcar says that figure may be as many as 20.

Young and Growing Companies

Both companies are young, but growing. Zipcar became profitable last summer. Flexcar projects it will be in the black this spring, but it's been a struggle selling the idea that you don't have to own a car to have the convenience of owning one.

One of their hopes is to get employers to use Zipcar. The Starbucks coffee chain, based in Seattle, is using a handful of Zipcars as fleet cars.

Swedish Medical Center, the biggest hospital in Seattle, pays for employees to use a Flexcar for work and personal business around town.

Jodi Seybolt, a nurse recruiter, says it allows her to avoid the enormous expense of bringing her car on the Bainbridge Island ferry every day on her commute to work.

"It makes a happy employee," she said.

Depending on where one lives, owning a car can cost anywhere from $500 to $700 a month. Ron Holden says his Flexcar bill is rarely more than $100 a month.

"If I lived downtown and had a car," he said, "I'd have to pay 100 to 150 just to park the car."