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My "Second Car" is a Mini Cooper/BMW/Convertible/Pickup

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If chronic traffic congestion hasn't led you to consider renewing your love affair with public transit, skyrocketing gas prices probably will. You might even wonder if owning a car is even a good idea these days, but can't imagine giving it up completely. Well, at least for those of you fortunate enough to live in or near the handful of American cities where the service is offered, a car sharing service like Flexcar or Zipcar may be just the ticket. Zipcar in particular has given more of us another reason to consider this option: variety.

For those of you scratching your heads wondering what the heck I'm talking about,
Flexcar and Zipcar are services where members can rent cars by the hour whenever they need. Cars are parked at strategic places, typically near subway stations or college campuses, and can be reserved online or by phone. Hourly rates, which include gas, insurance, and everything else, run from about $8.50-$12.50/hr depending on the model of vehicle you choose. For the carless or the 2-driver/1-car households like mine, these services are far more cost-effective than dealing with the myriad costs of buying, insuring, maintaining, parking, and registering a vehicle that sees only sporadic use.

It helps that we live in a very walkable neighborhood in Washington DC, near shops and a Metro station. It helps too that I work mostly from my home office, and so do not have to commute regularly to a client site in some distant suburb accessible only by car. But even for those of us that still need to own a car for every driver, there are those occasions when a pickup would come in handy for a couple hours, or you need a minivan to drive all your visiting relatives to your daughter's afternoon soccer game. Or maybe you want to leave the Camry in the driveway and take your wife out to celebrate your anniversary in a BMW 325 ($12.50/hr). At least with Zipcar, all of these scenarios are possible.

In case it isn't obvious, I'm partial to Zipcar. I used Flexcar for the first time in 2003, and was pleased enough with the service. Back then you could only use the phone for reservations. Flexcar's online reservations system was launched soon after, and is pretty easy to use, but the overall website is a bit hard to navigate. Zipcar's site is simply better all around, but their phone system is far superior to Flexcar's thanks to one key feature: caller id. With Flexcar you have to enter your user id and pin every time you call. With Zipcar, it recognizes you by your phone number and, if you're in the middle of a reservation, assumes you're calling to extend your time and takes you straight to that menu without delay. Oh, and that Zipcar Beemer drove real nice on my way to and from a business meeting last month .

We'll see how these services expand and evolve, but it is all but certain that they will. Both companies have received substantial investment recently, and just yesterday the Washington Post carried a
story about Steve Case (of AOL fame) making a big investment in Flexcar after using the service 3 months ago. As Case put's it in the article "I think car sharing is at that inflection point." And as I ponder the choice of a Miata or Mini Cooper convertible for my next suburban business meeting, I have to agree.

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