Although drivers have been able to rent vehicles by the day for years, in some urban areas cars can now be rented by the hour. Hourly rent car, or “car sharing,” programs provide customers the opportunity to rent cars only during the period of the day when actually needed. This article will briefly describe car sharing programs and examine safety aspects related to such programs.

Since 2000, an innovative personal transportation system has been growing: car sharing programs. These programs provide city-dwelling drivers with short-term, as-needed transportation solutions, conveniently and at relatively low cost. Instead of renting a vehicle for a full day, drivers rent vehicles for only those hours during the day when they need personal transportation.


How Car Sharing Works

After paying a nominal initial fee (generally around $25 USD) and receiving their membership card, car sharing program customers can reserve a vehicle using an online reservation system. At the appointed time, the customer walks to his/her reserved vehicle, which is parked at a convenient location in the neighborhood (Millard-Ball, et al., 2005; CarSharing, 2006).

The membership card unlocks the vehicle, and the customer gets in and drives away. Upon completing his/her transportation needs, the customer returns the vehicle to the same location, often a parking spot reserved by the city for car sharing program vehicles (Washington Examiner, 2006). The customer locks the vehicle and walks away, leaving the car ready for the next renter. The customer pays only by the hour, rather than for a full day’s rental. Fuel, maintenance, parking and insurance costs are generally included in the vehicle rental fee, adding to the convenience to customers.

In fact, many car sharing program customers do not own a personal vehicle or have chosen to sell their personal vehicle (Zipcar, 2006). Instead, they use such programs to supplement their usual transportation solution, which on most days involves public transportation systems. Thus, car sharing programs often act as a driver’s secondary and supplemental, rather than primary, mode of transportation. Customers may require personal transportation only occasionally, solving needs such as having to travel outside the reach of public transportation, carry cargo, or transport other persons such as family or friends.

Currently, these programs are available in areas with concentrated urban populations, including San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York City and Washington D.C. (Sturges, 2006).


Vehicles Available

These programs often feature economical, attractive and efficient vehicles. For example, one company offers vehicles such as the Mini Cooper and Scion xB (Zipcar, 2006). These vehicles are relatively small and easy to maneuver, have substantial cargo capacity and are very fuel efficient. For many customers, they feature the added benefit of being fun to drive.

Gas-electric hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, are also featured by some programs. Larger vehicles may also be available for customers needing additional capacity, such as BMW sedans, pickups and minivans (Flexcar, 2006).


Potential Benfits

Like any transportation system, car sharing programs feature both potential benefits and potential negatives. Potential benefits, both short-term and long-term, could include:

1) Lower personal transportation costs. Instead of having to own, insure and maintain a personal vehicle, hourly rent car program customers pay only for the time during which they actually use the vehicle. With the average cost of owning and operating a vehicle in the U.S. exceeding thousands of dollars per year, it can make sense for some drivers to reduce their overall personal transportation costs through short-term vehicle renting. In fact, many car sharing program customers have sold their personal vehicles as a result of their satisfaction with access of these types of programs (Zipcar, 2006).

2) Reduced traffic congestion. As more drivers come to use fewer vehicles as a whole, the net result could be a reduction in the total number of vehicles on the road. Fewer total vehicles could result in reduced traffic congestion, decreased transit time, and diminished driver frustration and even fewer road rage incidents.

3) Decreased transit time. Fewer vehicles could also translate into shorter average per-driver transit times, resulting in less total time spent behind the wheel. Car sharing programs have also learned that, because many of their customers no longer have personal vehicles that are just waiting to be driven, car sharing users tend to make fewer trips, resulting in fewer overall miles driven per year.

4) Reduced fuel consumption. The vehicles offered by these services tend to be very fuel efficient. For example, the EPA city/highway mileage rating for the Mini Cooper and Scion xB are 30/34 and 28/36, respectively. Assuming car sharing programs continue to offer high efficiency vehicles, this could serve to reduce the average fuel consumed per mile driven, regardless of driver, positively affecting the nation’s need for oil.

5) Fewer vehicle emissions. More efficient vehicles would produce fewer exhaust gases, resulting in less total emission of exhaust gases. This could have substantial positive impact on the environment.

6) Fewer motor vehicle crashes. If there are fewer vehicles, there would be fewer opportunities for vehicles to collide with one another.

7) Fewer injuries and deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes. Likewise, fewer motor vehicle crashes would result in fewer injuries and deaths from such collisions.


W.E. Van Tassel, Ph.D. and E.E. Floyd-Bann, Ed.D. AAA National Office