CarShare heads upwardly mobile Car-share grows and puts pizzazz in its fleet Putting some pizzazz in the fleet

Posted: April 12, 2006

For all of Philadelphia's cultural amenities, architectural richness and historical importance, the place can just stink if you like owning a car.

Ask any urban dweller-driver and you'll likely get an earful about sky-high insurance, expensive or inconvenient parking, and, of course, break-ins.

Which might explain the success of car-borrowing nonprofit group PhillyCarShare, and the mounting interest in Philadelphia of bigger, corporate car-sharing firms that operate in other cities.

"We're very interested in Philly, it fits right into our East Coast corridor cities," said Scott Griffith, chief executive officer of Boston-based Zipcar.

Though PhillyCarShare cofounder Clayton Lane said he was not worried about the possible competition, the organization announced it had diversified its fleet with some spicier models such as the Mini Cooper, Volkswagen New Beetle convertible, and a pair of BMW 325i's.

Previously, the PhillyCarShare lineup had consisted of marked and unmarked Toyota Prius hybrids - to reinforce the nonprofit's socially responsible philosophy - and a few Toyota Matrix hatchbacks for hauling stuff.

Lane said the decision to add Minis, Beemers and Beetles was more about appealing to a broader market than about competitive worries. Zipcar and its rival, Flexcar, he said, have flirted with Philadelphia for years, but so far have done nothing.

"We wanted our current members to have more fun, and we wanted to appeal to a broader market."

The recently introduced BMWs, for instance, have proved popular with lawyers and businesspeople wanting to impress clients.

Lane admitted, though, to occasionally checking out what PhillyCarShare's non-competitors - for now - have to offer.

"It's only smart to see what the best practices might be in other cities."

Zipcar is firmly established in Washington, Boston and New York on the East Coast, is profitable, and is growing at a rate of 100 percent a year, Griffith said.

"There will certainly be a day when Zipcar is in Philly," he said, though he could not provide a date.

For now, Philadelphia is listed as a "coming soon" city on the Zipcar Web site. The company has intently studied Philadelphia and, Griffith said, "we think Philadelphia is a wonderful city for the concept."

PhillyCarShare, a nonprofit started in 2002 with two cars and nine members, concurs that business has been good.

"The winter is the slow period, always," PhillyCarShare's Lane said.

"But we grew by about 500 members" over the winter, he said. Last June, July and August, when gasoline prices hit record highs, the company signed up 200 members - a record at the time.

Total membership is now about 2,500, and the service's fleet includes dozens of cars in 40 locations throughout the city.

By contrast, Zipcar, which says it is the country's largest car-sharing service, has 50,000 customers, with nearly 1,000 vehicles in 29 cities.

The Zipcar fleet has nearly 20 vehicle models, including Toyota Scions, Mazda Miatas, Volvos, Ford Escape SUVs and others. The vehicles come with XM satellite radio.

"We wanted it to be something special," Griffith said, adding that about three years ago when he started at Zipcar, there was not much difference between car-sharing services.

He drew a comparison to the food co-op industry and how organic- and health-food shopping was revolutionized by grocer Whole Foods.

"My mission was to make Zipcar the Whole Foods of car sharing."

For now, PhillyCarShare has customers such as Philadelphia resident Stephen Playo and his wife, Nickolette Phillips, to itself.

Playo said they saved $3,000 or more a year using PhillyCarShare instead of owning a car.

"Anyone who lives here realizes how bad it is cost-wise," said Playo, an engineer who lives in Center City. "All that time the car is parked . . . people are paying upward of $60 a day."

For heavy car-share users, Playo said, "it might be $60 a week." For one plan, users pay $15 a month, plus $5.90 an hour and 9 cents a mile to cover fuel, insurance, maintenance and parking.

Lane said that a nonprofit such as PhillyCarShare would take the needs of city residents of all economic levels more to heart.

"We will serve the entire city, not just the most profitable areas."

But Zipcar's Griffith said the notion that a for-profit car-share service would avoid poorer parts of town was "ridiculous."

"People that are on the margin are more likely to use car sharing, because it's a great deal."

However the competitive landscape shapes up here, both services said competition would benefit the motoring public. Competitive pressures, in part, have spurred Zipcar to upgrade technology to improve customer service, Griffith said.

"Our biggest competition is car ownership," Lane said.

Contact staff writer Akweli Parker at 215-854-5986 or aparker@phillynews.com.

Gotta Ride?

Car-sharing operators at a glance:

PhillyCarShare

Members: 2,500.

Cities: Philadelphia.

Cost: $25 sign-up fee, $15 monthly; $5.90 an hour plus 9 cents a mile.

Zipcar

Members: 50,000

Cities: 29, including Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco and others; Philadelphia "coming soon."

Cost: $8.75 to $10.75 hourly, or $62 to $72 daily.

Flexcar

Members: 35,000.

Cities: 6 metro areas, including Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Los Angeles; San Diego; and Washington.

Cost: In Washington, $35 annual fee, $9 an hour. Other plans available.

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