The C Is for Crank

The Death of Zipcar

Rental-car behemoth Avis' purchase of Zipcar means the end of carsharing as we know it.

By Erica C. Barnett January 3, 2013


The C Is For Crank

Avis, the rental-car behemoth, announced yesterday that it has bought Zipcar, the car-sharing behemoth, for nearly half a billion dollars.  Zipcar's 760,000 members pay for cars by the day or hour, often as an alternative to owning their own.

Although I'm a Zipcar member (or, as the company would have it, "Zipster") I wouldn't exactly call myself a fan. Zipcar has long been a "car-sharing" service in name only—unlike its more communitarian predecessor Flexcar, which Zipcar swallowed up in 2008, the company functions more like an hourly rental service, with good behavior (filling up with gas, returning cars on time) enforced through punishment, not reward.

Where Flexcar gave members free hours if they filled up the tank, Zipcar docks members $50 for returning cars even a couple of minutes late. Where Flexcar gave members a driving credit for cleaning their car, Zipcar has members report each other if a car is dirty. And where Flexcar gave credits for filling the tank, Zipcar charges members who fail to keep the tank a quarter full.  

The late, lamented Flexcar. Image via Wikipedia.

Avis is a rental-car company, not a carsharing service. Its business model, as Steven Pearlstein at the Washington Post'Wonkblog points out, relies on centralized pickup spots, upsells, and package deals with airlines and hotels. Avis has pledged to respect Zipcar's "culture," but their first priority is going to be their bottom line; if that means eliminating cars in "out of the way" areas like the south end of Seattle, or cutting back on customer service, that's what they'll do. 

I still have a Zipcar membership. But I'm hedging my bets. I just signed up with Car2Go, a SmartCar-sharing service that allows members to drive a car from one point to another and leave it in any metered parking spot.  

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