It’s never been easier to be carless in the city. Not because of a boom in public transit, but because of car-sharing services, which make owning a vehicle akin to paying for a nanny instead of hiring the occasional babysitter.
Where do the cars live?
Established companies like Zipcar have parking lots sprinkled throughout urban areas, while newer P2P services connect drivers with private owners (a nice way to make extra money, given that the average car sits unused for 22 hours a day). Most systems use smartphones, GPS tracking, social networks, RFID cards, and the real-time web to connect drivers with vehicles, often within minutes.
How does the system work?
Drivers typically sign up online for memberships, often choosing a subscription plan or a monthly minimum payment. Reservations take a few taps on a phone, and unlocking the car can be as easy as touching a smartcard to the windshield. Usually keys and a gas card will be waiting inside the vehicle, though some car-sharing networks, especially P2Ps, require an in-person key exchange.
What about Insurance?
The services in our review all include rental coverage, which varies by company. A 2011 California law called AB 1871 protects car owners in P2P networks by stating that the owner’s insurance is not liable during a rental period as long as the P2P service has coverage and the owner’s rental revenue does not exceed the expense of owning and operating the vehicle. Several other states are considering similar laws.
AAA estimates that the average American who owns a small sedan and drives it 10,000 miles a year spends $5,860 per annum on car ownership. For that, you could log up to 20 hours a week through a car-sharing outfit.
But many providers limit each rental to three or four days and start charging extra fees after 160 miles per day. So for errands and the occasional weekend getaway, a car-sharing setup can save you time and money. For longer commutes or out-of-town trips, you’re better off buying a car or using a traditional rental agency.
How We Tested
We evaluated standard providers Zipcar and City CarShare and P2P services RelayRides and Getaround on midday errands, rush-hour commutes, and evening outings on the streets of San Francisco.