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Zipcar sputters to a start at HSU

click to enlarge ZipCars live here: library circle on the HSU campus. - PHOTO BY JOSEPHINE JOHNSON
  • Photo by Josephine Johnson
  • ZipCars live here: library circle on the HSU campus.

This spring Rob Christensen, a Eureka resident who works at Humboldt State, hopped a ride to San Francisco to hang with a friend for the weekend and catch a flight from SFO. His buddy, proudly car-free in the city, rented a Zipcar to take Christensen to the airport.

"It was cool because he reserved everything online, and then we walked like four blocks from his place to get the car." According to Christensen, Zipcars are highly visible throughout San Francisco, most often parked in pairs at gas stations. "His member card unlocked it, and the keys were already inside. It was so easy," he recalled.

It was love at first ride. So Christensen was glad to learn that Humboldt State has teamed up with Zipcar to host two vehicles on campus.

Unlike conventional car rental companies, Zipcars makes vehicles available for one hour at a time, and will rent to HSU students younger than 21. This is especially zip-tacular if you and your roomie gotta make an afternoon Costco run for tonight's big bash, or if you're just Jonesin' for Denny's at 2 a.m. It's an innovative transportation strategy, and it's available for HSU students, staff and faculty as well as for community members with no ties to the campus.

In early August, Humboldt State signed a two-year contract with Zipcar, agreeing to pay up to $20,800 to launch the service here.

A Toyota Prius (named Psyche) and a Mazda 3 (Marsha) arrived on Sept. 29.

So far, though, the cars mostly have remained in their own dedicated parking spaces at library circle (near the bus stop).

Both HSU and Zipcar are exceedingly zip-lipped when it comes to disclosing information about their financial agreement.

Thank goodness for the California Public Records Act.

A request made to Paul Mann, Humboldt State's senior news and information officer -- after multiple emails and phone calls -- did yield a copy of the contract, which indicates Humboldt State may pledge up to $3,100 a month to Zipcar to bolster the company's revenues if car rentals and memberships don't hit a certain minimum.

That minimum isn't specified.

The money, which is capped at $20,800, will come from the university's Loyalty Fund until (hopefully) the Zipcar program sustains itself. A student eager to see Zipcar at HSU applied for the Loyalty Fund grant last year, according to Frank Whitlatch, interim vice president for university advancement. The fund is maintained primarily by alumni donations and ranges between $400,000 and $500,000 annually. Typically, it supports student scholarships, faculty research, academic programs, the library and special projects like Zipcar.

So, how well is Zipcar doing at meeting any minimum use levels?

Getting local Zipcar usage stats is like wresting gold from behind the walls of Fort Knox. Zipcar willingly shares nothing about user demographics or how frequently cars are being rented at any given location.

But Zipcar does grant trial memberships to the media, and from the car reservation grid available to all users, the North Coast Journal was able to get a glimpse of how often the cars are being used.

From Nov. 6 through Nov. 20, we logged in each morning between 7 and 9 a.m. and checked the grid for each day, 30 days into the future. We determined that the cars were reserved for a total of 43.5 hours during this time -- and remained mostly unused during weekdays.  

Chantell Krider, who works on-campus in an office near the parked Zipcars, notes that "in the mornings and at lunch when I walk by, the cars are usually there. On Thursdays and Fridays they seem to move a little more. I don't know about the weekends."

If the cars stay put during the week and move mostly on the weekends, how does that translate to dollars?

It's a little tricky to answer that given the two-tier nature of memberships.

People who aren't affiliated with HSU pay a one-time $25 application fee and a $50 annual membership fee to join Zipcar, and can rent cars for $8.75 an hour and $63 per day. The HSU crowd -- students, staff and faculty -- pays no application fee and only $35 per year membership, and can rent cars for $8 an hour and $66 per day. 

If 80 percent of the reservations we saw on the company's grid were by HSU-ers at an hourly rate and the rest by community members at the hourly rate, and if all reservations materialized into actual rentals, that would have generated $348 for the two-week period. Even if that number were doubled to estimate revenue for an entire month ($696), it's nowhere near the guarantee of $3,100 that HSU is responsible for to Zipcar. Throw in the membership fees, though, and it might help for the first month or two. Just 100 new campus members would generate $3,500 for Zipcar.

No one at the university is willing to say just how much of that $20,800 maximum HSU has already spent supporting Zipcar, but it's clear that Zipcar has its fans.

"My partner and I have one car," said Christensen. "We bike, take the bus, walk. With Zipcar we have one more option." And he uses the cars pretty often -- at lunch sometimes to take care of personal business, or on weekends occasionally to travel greater distances.

In October, he and his partner reserved a Toyota Prius for 24 hours for a trip to Fort Bragg. "Since we share a 2002 Ford Taurus with 170,000 miles on it, we needed something more dependable for the trip." But they were a little late (by two hours) getting back to HSU. Rental fees assessed for the extended excursion: $66 for one day plus $16 ($8 hourly rate) for a grand total of $82.  By comparison, conventional rental companies can charge an entire day's rate for a late car. And with Zipcar, gas and insurance fees are included.

Zipcar, which was founded in 2000 in Cambridge, Mass., grew slowly until 2007. Remember 2007? When gas prices all over America began skyrocketing? That was the year Zipcar began to take off, purchasing Seattled-based Flexcar (its main competitor), then Barcelona-based Avancar in 2009 and London-based Streetcar in 2010. In April 2011 the company went public, and though its top executive told the Associated Press in April that it is still not turning an annual profit, Zipcar continues its ascent. Currently, it is partnered with more than 250 universities in the United States and Canada. 

At HSU, the university plans to encourage Zipcar usage, with a couple of student interns making promotional videos in the spring semester, according to TC Comet, Humboldt State's sustainability director and campus Zipcar point person.

With the clock ticking on the university's $20,800 grant, Zipcar could be a use-it-or-lose kind of thing.

If you like the idea of car sharing, better zip to it!

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Josephine Johnson

Josephine Johnson

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