Zipcars Offer Alternative to Car Ownership

Sep 30, 2013

A growing number of Zipcars are showing up around Milwaukee.

Zipcars come in a number of models, including the Toyota Prius
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

They are cars people share, renting them occasionally -- usually just for a couple hours at a time.

Drivers pay $60 a year to join the Zipcar club, then go online or use an app to find out which cars are available, and where. Zipcar has 40 cars and trucks in Milwaukee, scattered at 20 parking spaces.

Spokeswoman Chandra Morando demonstrated how members access a car they’ve reserved. She visited a Zipcar space in a lot across the street from the Pfister Hotel.

“What I did earlier today, was I went to our app on my smart phone, and I made a reservation for a couple hours on this car right here,” Morando says.

Morando chose a black Audi A3. She says her reservation sent a signal to a small receptor behind the car’s windshield.

Company spokeswoman Chandra Morando shows the Zipcar membership card, which members swipe across the windshield in order to unlock a car or truck
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

“And I’ll just hold my unique Zipcard over that receptor, so you’ll hear it beep and unlock. So just like that, the car’s open and the keys are going to be tethered inside to the dash and ready for us to drive,” Morando says.

In addition to the cost of the membership, Morando says drivers also pay for the time they use the car.

“Our driving here in Milwaukee starts at $8.50 an hour, and that’s going to be for something like a Honda Civic or a Mazda 3 -- a basic sedan. It costs about $1.00 more an hour to drive something like this A3, and then about $10.50 an hour if you want to drive, like, a Mercedes-Benz C300,” Morando says.

Morando says the price includes insurance and even gas. The card is tucked behind the visor. It acts like a credit or debit card at any pump.

Drivers can pick up Zipcars at several sites on the UWM campus, such as this one outside the Sandburg dorms
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Morando says Zipcar is one of several car sharing services around the country. It established a presence in Milwaukee a few years ago, by buying out a similar operation at UW-Milwaukee.

“We’re spread as far northeast as UWM, we’re going as far west as Marquette, and as of right now we’re as far south as the Third Ward. But we just got authorization to be in a city lot down in Bay View. We’ll have spots in Riverwest also,” Morando says.

Morando says the business is designed for people who don’t want to own a car or can’t afford one. Jessica Heese falls in the latter category. She’s a senior at UWM, and her car died a few weeks ago. Heese says she uses the bus, but sometimes it’s not practical, such as for grocery shopping.

“I was having to try and stuff my backpack and a couple bags as full as I could. And if I wanted to get a 12-pack of soda or a gallon of milk, it just became really frustrating to have to take it on the bus the whole time,” Heese says.

When not in use, each Zipcar “lives” at a designated parking space. Members who work or live nearby often rent the same vehicle on multiple occasions
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

So, is the bus company worried about competition from the car sharing service? The answer is “no.”

“Sometimes the bus isn’t going to be the right transportation for individuals,” says Jackie Janz, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee County Transit System.

Janz adds: "Our economy and our community depend on people having reliable transportation, so there needs to be multi-modes to do that."

Zipcar spokesperson Chandra Morando won’t say how many people have bought memberships in Milwaukee.

But UWM told us it’s helped nearly 1,000 students and staff join. Morando perceives a growth in what she calls a “sharing culture,” as people realize they don’t have to own everything they use.