Andrew Burke

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Zipcar: My Other Car is a Mini Convertible Named Munster
Posted on: 2007-10-14

The nature of my work is changing somewhat - and the days of having to drive to Markham or Vaughan every day to sit in a cubicle are pretty-well over. I spend quite a bit of extra money in rent and put up with a lot of outside noise at night to live in the heart of the city, and frankly having a car is a lot of expense and bother. I've been looking over the last few years of spending, and having a car costs roughly $3000 to $4000 a year, and that's for a car that's completely 100% owned and paid off. Insurance, gasoline, parking, registration, and service all add up to quite a total. There's also the constant looking out the window to see if the car has been keyed or stolen or 'accidentally' ticketed. So I'm thinking of getting rid of my car.

Of course, I'll still need wheels - I have to go for meetings and the like in Mississauga, Vaughan, and Newmarket, and the FIV-positive cats need frequent trips to the vet - but only a few times a month. So, I've decided to try ZipCar. I can see two of their cars from my window, in a lot half a block away. I can use them a few times a week and still come out ahead in terms of cost compared to owning my own vehicle. The big question I had was convenience - how much less (or more) of a hassle is it?

Well, gasoline, service, maintenance, and insurance are covered in the regular fees. That's a lot of convenience right there - no sudden surprise $1000 drive belt replacements, no trying half a dozen car places to find one that doesn't screw me over, no haggling with my insurance broker about deductibles. Signing up and getting started was remarkably easy too. The website is clean and clear and good-natured. From initial sign-up to being able to reserve a car took roughly a day. I reserved a car for a few hours on Thursday to try things out - a simple online interface showed me all available cars nearby, and, hey, look there's a Mini Cooper convertible a few blocks away in Yorkville (natch)! Claimed it and took it for a spin.

The secret with ZipCar is their key-card system. You get a personal ZipCard, and when you reserve a car, the card reader in that car's windshield is set up to accept your card's ID. Wave the card over the reader to lock and unlock the door, and the ignition key is already inside the car. This is a great example of a system that wouldn't have worked as cleanly (or at all) before digital wireless communications, fancy computer systems, and the internet.

ZipCar have really focused on the simple no-hassle experience. Renting a car for me at a traditional place has been about standing in line behind a semi-literate family of five who accidentally reserved a motorcycle, having clueless staff pore over computer terminals endlessly for even a simple reservation (I've always wondered what takes them so long - I'm not asking for anything special, just a car!), being hard-sold for extra insurance or upgrades, being given the Evil Eye if I don't get the contract out quickly enough at the lot exit to prove that I'm not a car thief, and then driving a pink GM car around, looking like I'm on my way to a Shania Twain concert.

With ZipCar, I reserve on-line on a clean and easy website, I can get email or texted on my phone to remind me of my reservation, and I can call up to extend my time if I need to - and I got an actual person on the other line after one ring. Also, while traditional car rental experiences tend towards the bland and generic - it's about large scale and corporate accounts and business - ZipCar has little whimsical touches, like giving all of their cars names, like "Munster" and "Manilow".

You end up driving around town in a car with big "ZIPCAR" stickers on the side, making you feel a bit like a deliveryman. ZipCar thought this might be awkward, too, so they have cooler cars. The Mini Cooper is a fun car to drive - although when the convertible roof is up, there are some serious visibility problems in the back and in the blind spots. Gunning down a highway on-ramp is fun - the car is really happy between 2k and 3k RPM and just eats up the road. Driving around with the top down, especially on the highway, is quite the experience - you feel much more connected to the outside world. Also, if it's raining, you won't get wet at all if you're moving faster than about 40km/h.

As I returned to Yorkville, I saw a whole bus stop full of little school kids waving - and I realized that it might have been at my car. That never happened in my old Honda Civic!

They also have Mazda 3s, some trucks, and even a BMW 300-series - which I may need to borrow some day for impressing prospective clients.

By the way, anybody want to buy a red 1994 Volvo 850 with 240,000 km on it? It's half luxury car, half tank - power everything and one of the safest things on the road. It's a great car and has served two generations of my family, but I don't see myself really needing it anymore.

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