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VOL. 128 | NO. 87 | Friday, May 03, 2013

Test Drive

Zipcars begin pilot project in automobile-centric Memphis

By Bill Dries

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When car sharing meets the parking and driving practices of Memphians on the streets of Downtown, the encounter could go so many ways between bad and good.

Brett Roler speaks to Charles Jackson with the Blue Suede Brigade about Zipcar during an introductory event at Court Square. Initially, there will be four of the rent-by-the-hour zipcars at two locations Downtown.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

So when Zipcar parked four cars in four on-street parking spaces Downtown last month, there were a lot of questions first about how car sharing works but also about whether the national trend would apply to a city with a unique driving culture.

“I don’t know if this will work or not,” said Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Morris. “But I think it’s worth giving it a look. … We’re not risking anything. I’m not predicting success, but I’m optimistic.”

Downtown is relatively denser than other parts of the city with residents and office workers walking and bicycling a lot. But it’s not nearly as dense as other cities where Zipcar and other car-sharing companies have been for some time. And those other cities have more developed public transportation systems.

In some of the other cities, car-sharing has evolved into exchanges where a car owner makes their car available for car-sharing during times they know they won’t need it.

In Washington, there are 900 Zipcars and competition among car-sharing companies for parking spaces that do not come cheap.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that Car2go paid $2,890 per vehicle in Washington for use of a metered space.

The four Downtown parking spaces are free to Zipcar as part of the three-year trial run in Memphis. The Downtown Memphis Commission reached out to Zipcar and Morris went to the Memphis City Council earlier this year to secure the spaces.

The car-sharing service has had a Memphis presence since the summer of 2010 when Rhodes College got a Zipcar on campus. The company markets the service to universities as a solution to limited on-campus parking. In the case of Rhodes, most of the students on campus live on campus too.

Two of the four Downtown spots are on the north side of Gayoso Avenue on the block between South Main Street and Nov. 6th Street by the Park & Play Garage.

The other two are on the east side of South Main between Huling and Talbot avenues.

All four spaces are existing on-street parking spaces that do not have parking meters. They are not in front of any ground-floor businesses, which means they don’t take parking that could be used by customers.

If the Memphis experiment works, an expansion of car sharing could mean the cars would be parked in reserved spaces in garages.

Some on the council are still upset over the city’s agreement to turn over street parking space on Court Avenue between Front Street and Riverside Drive to the nearby University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphries School of Law.

The concern didn’t translate into serious opposition, although council member Lee Harris wanted to know why the city didn’t charge the vendor at the outset. At that point, Zipcar had not agreed and Morris’ agency was still searching for someone to accept the offer.

Harris’s argument is that car sharing is big business and the rental car companies that have added the sector can afford to pay for parking spots.

Avis Budget group bought Zipcar in January for $491 million, six years after Zipcar grew in a merger with rival Flexcar.

The company touts not only its fleet of cars but the technology that allows subscribers to reserve cars in minutes from mobile applications at any time.

Run zipcards given to those who subscribe to the service over a decal on the driver’s side windshield and the car unlocks if you are booked to use it. The keys are permanently attached to a retractable chain by the steering wheel.

Zipcard doesn’t talk about security measures but says it has measures in place for those who might be tempted to keep driving. There are fines for being late in returning the car that could get you bounced from the service if it happens enough. Insurance is included in the membership fee and there is a gas card in the vehicles.

“They won’t go away,” council member Myron Lowery emphasized as he talked about the keys tethered to the dash.

Lowery was the council member who backed the trial run.

“You may not need a car for a whole day. You may not be able to get down to Avis or to Hertz but you can get Downtown riding on the trolley line,” he said. “You can pick it up and bring it back. It’s an amenity for our citizens.”

Morris used the example of a Downtown couple.

“In Memphis, of course, we are so car-centric that we each have our own car. They almost never use these cars but they keep them parked in the garage. They pay $80 a month for the garage,” he said. “That couple can maybe sell one of their two cars, keep one car and then when they need two cars on that rare occasion, they’ll have access to the extra vehicle.”

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