Wednesday, September 21

Leaving Campus by Car, and the College Even Helps

September 21, 2005

A full day of classes just wasn't appealing to David Goldstein, a student at George Washington University, so he invited a friend on a road trip to the Shenandoah Valley.

The fact that neither owned a car didn't matter - they simply booked one online and headed to campus, where the very school they were ditching provided them with a ride to the mountains.

When Mr. Goldstein needs a car, he reserves one through Zipcar, a five-year-old car-sharing agency that allows users to reserve cars by the hour or day and that has been courting students, faculty members and staff at colleges since 2003.

"Having a car changes your life completely. It's freedom," said Mr. Goldstein, 22, who relied on public transportation before Zipcar. "I can just get into the car and do whatever I want to do."

The company estimates that about 20 percent of its users come from its college program. Twenty East Coast schools, including Tufts, Howard, Rutgers and American University, have Zipcars on campus.

"Students, faculty and staff want to have access to transportation, and the schools have problems providing parking," said Scott Griffith, chief executive of Zipcar. "There's a tension between 'I want a car' and schools being unable to provide parking. We stepped in with a nice solution."

Schools sign up for the program free, but must provide parking spots, basic maintenance like oil changes, and cleaning. Zipcar provides the cars, basic insurance and marketing, Mr. Griffith said.

People affiliated with a university partner do not have to pay the standard $175 in fees, instead paying a $25 annual fee. Cars cost $8.50 an hour or $60 a day. People who joined through colleges will get the discount at all Zipcar locations.

Mark Horowitz, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he considered buying a used car when he arrived on campus last year, but realized that Zipcar would be cheaper and parking would be easier. He uses the car to drive to discount stores and supermarkets, which are cheaper than food shopping options near campus. He returns the car to its reserved Zipcar space.

"I'm living on a grad student stipend. I can barely afford to live as it is," Mr. Horowitz, 30, said of his decision to forgo a car. "Things are a bit more expensive here. And now I can go to Target and buy everything I need. I do save money that way. I don't know how much, but it must pay for the car."

Renters must be over 21, although schools can buy additional insurance through a third party to insure drivers ages 18 to 20. All renters must have a valid driver's license that is at least a year old and consent to a driving record check. If any egregious violations are found, the driver cannot rent.

But the best part lately, users said, is that Zipcar pays for gas. And the universities shovel out the cars during snowstorms, which increased rentals at Tufts University last winter.

Zipcar, whose headquarters are in Cambridge, Mass., said about 70 of its 700 cars are on the 20 campuses. The service mainly offers small cars including Honda Civics and Volkswagen Jettas, but for $1 more an hour users can rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. About 15 percent of the fleet consists of hybrid or electric cars.

University officials said the program is a way to offer students alternative means of transportation at little charge to the school while conserving parking spots.

"As parking availability lessens here on campus, we have to make sure there are transportation options available, and this is one of the options," said Randy Young, a spokesman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is losing spots because of construction. "This is seen as an economical and ecologically sound alternative operation."

The program started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003, said Larry Bruti, the university's director of parking services. About 1,600 students and faculty and staff members are now registered users, he said. M.I.T. has seven cars, with hundreds available in the area.

The service makes sense, he said, as M.I.T. has 4,814 parking spots for students, faculty members and staff. They're not cheap, either - students pay $592 for a space, while employees pay $575.

Elizabeth Cooney, a graduate student at M.I.T., signed up for Zipcar last year. The service is invaluable to Ms. Cooney and her husband, who is also in graduate school, because it is inexpensive and convenient - there is a pickup and drop-off location next to their apartment building, where car owners have to pay $175 for a spot, she said.

"For us, it's the price factor," she said. "It's much cheaper and more convenient, and you don't have to worry about where it's parked all the time. If we didn't have Zipcar it would be impossible to go to Target, or the mall, or drop packages at UPS."

Use of the cars, however, is as varied as students.

Mr. Goldstein, a fifth-year student at George Washington University, first used a Zipcar last summer to drive to a diner in Arlington, Va., with some friends at 3 a.m., to eat a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich with French fries. He often rented the cars in the middle of the night when he worked as a restaurant manger this summer, and once drove to Virginia to go grocery shopping.

"I have a weird schedule and I rented a Zipcar at 3:30 a.m.," Mr. Goldstein said. "I got my grocery shopping done. It was a nice trip. That way you're not fighting with some old lady in a muumuu over a cantaloupe."

Mr. Goldstein rented a car nearly every Sunday night to drive to the Cheesecake Factory, where he and his friends would buy cheesecake to eat while watching the HBO show "Entourage."

"I can't afford a car, but I can afford a Zipcar," Mr. Goldstein said.

Students and university officials say access is often the biggest problem, as not all the cars are always available. But officials at Zipcar said they had avoided what might seem to be the biggest concern with college students - drunken driving.

Mr. Griffith said there had been no reports of students' driving drunk in a Zipcar, and there have been no reported accidents thus far. Were there reports or, upon returning the car, evidence that something happened, the person's membership would be canceled, he said.

"This is sort of a self-policing system," Mr. Griffith said. "People rely on Zipcars and want to use them, and there's some natural forces at work that keeps people handling them appropriately. And we certainly monitor and watch the populations to make sure there's not anything inappropriate going on."

Students like the approach.

"I would never want to get a D.U.I. in a Zipcar," Mr. Goldstein said. "They'd revoke my membership. Never mind what happened to me."