By Cynthia Armour
City on a Hill Press Reporter

It’s time to break up with your car.

You’ve kept it around because you can’t imagine life without it, not because it’s a sustainable or cost-effective form of transportation. But now, with Zipcars and other car-sharing methods available, this is a perfect post-breakup backup plan.

The anti-car movement started with public transportation, buses, and trains — local, national, and transnational projects. Then carpools and ride-sharing branched out as organized forms of hitchhiking.

Car-sharing represented the missing puzzle piece.

The concept behind car-sharing is simple, and many different companies are trying to establish their own versions. The idea was imported from Europe where people are, for the most part, less dependent on personal vehicles. The first company of its kind in the U.S., Zipcar, introduced car-sharing to Santa Cruz a little over two years ago.

With Zipcar, members pay an annual fee and rent cars by the half-hour. The cars are easily accessible in several parking lots both on campus and downtown, and Zipcar covers gas, insurance and maintenance.

The idea of being a member, or Zipster, emphasizes responsibility. If a car is late coming back, then the next person is inconvenienced, and so on. On the flip side, the warmth on the seat from the previous driver is a sensory proof of the community effort to share a car.

Teresa Buika, the campus transportation planner at UC Santa Cruz, started researching the car-share program five years ago.

“Bringing Zipcar to UCSC encourages students, faculty and staff not to bring their cars on campus by providing an alternative,” Buika said.

UCSC is expanding Zipcar presence, since the city of Santa Cruz will not always be able to support the growing numbers of students with vehicles.

“The number of students is growing but not the campus, and people are realizing how difficult and inconvenient it is to have a car on campus,” said Eva Stevens, a third-year student who works as Zipcar’s outreach and marketing coordinator on campus.

Getting up to campus with a vehicle is not only difficult, it is also expensive.

UCSC on-campus resident Alexandra Burke, like many students who have had to toil to find and pay for parking on campus, is frustrated by the university’s high parking rates.

“I think it’s whack how expensive the permits on campus are,” Burke said. “There are no options. If my friends come over, they can either park on campus for 20 minutes or park downtown.”

Rachel Foss and Marisol Rivas, two first-year students from Oakes, are Zipcar members. They listed convenience and price as their primary reason for car-sharing.

“It’s so much more affordable than buying a permit,” Foss said.

Additionally, Buika explained, the availability of Zipcars on campus minimizes traffic impact on the campus and community.

“The university, city and county recently signed a climate action compact in a local joint effort to minimize negative environmental impact,” Buika said. “Zipcar plays perfectly into this.”

Though a mainstay of many European cities and towns, Stevens says Zipcar is still eye-opening to many on the local level.

“When you own a car, you end up driving it everywhere … you don’t think about what your basic necessities for a car are,” Stevens said.

Matt Malloy, the vice president of new markets development for Zipcar, emphasized how cars provided a lazy excuse for not taking public transportation, walking, or biking.

“People immediately look to their cars, even if it’s just to go the corner store and buy a gallon of milk,” Malloy said. “You could walk, but driving the car is so much easier.”

As people take that first step of using Zipcar, they are forced to think ahead about when and for how long they are going to need a car — planning that Stevens sees as fostering a positive shift of consciousness on the real necessity of using a car.

Many Americans, though, are far from being ready for such huge changes in their lifestyle. Out of 20 polled students, all 16 who owned cars said they could not imagine living without their car. Although 18 out of 20 said they found car-sharing an appealing idea, only three expressed the intention of switching to Zipcar — and this is at one of the most self-professed liberal, progressive universities in the country.

These numbers show just how car-dependent we have become.

“We live in a car-centered world,” Buika said.

Nonetheless, cars may no longer be a suitable form of transportation for our society. When the price of gas rose above $4 a gallon in 2008, for example, the number of new Zipcar members soared.

Similarly, when Europe was in dire need of finding alternatives to personal cars, many individual countries developed car-sharing services. With gas at a drastically higher price in Europe, and with cities even more congested than the biggest ones in the U.S., Europe essentially had no other option. In the U.S., public attention is slowly turning toward similar alternatives.

“People are waking up and realizing that owning a car is not cost-effective,” Malloy said.

Aside from being cost-ineffective, dependence upon personal cars is not helping the environment either. Environmental scientists have widely affirmed that our nation won’t last long at the pace we are going and in the direction we are heading when it comes to gas consumption. This is just as evident in giant, population-dense countries like China, Brazil and India.

“There are two statistics that bring me to work every day,” Malloy said. “First of all, people come to us and say that using Zipcar saves them $600 a month. Second of all, every Zipcar we set up takes 15 privately owned cars off the road.”

Malloy noted that these numbers have been verified by multiple studies and hold true city-to-city and university-to-university.

The Web site for City Carshare, a nonprofit car-sharing company, states, “For every vehicle we put on the road lots more come off. Some say it’s seven, some say it’s 20: all we know is that it’s making a real difference.”

Car-sharing is not the only form of alternative transportation that addresses the specific issue of over-use of personal vehicles. Advocates of car-sharing also widely support public transportation, increased bike use, walking, carpooling and overall lifestyle changes.

Nonetheless, as an entirely new category of transportation, car-sharing plays a small yet essential role in changing how we see car ownership. Its newness, at least in American communities, has left many — even those in the automobile industry — interested but still in need of more information.

Mike Gay of the Argus Company, a Santa Cruz-based car dealership, admitted knowing little about car-sharing until very recently. Many other Santa Cruz car dealerships were equally straightforward in saying that, despite dealing with cars every day, they had no idea what car-sharing was.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” Gay said. “Santa Cruz is a suburban area, but in the city, people can and do live without cars. In the city it can be a pain to own a car.”

Buika said that he believes car-sharing plays a positive role in changing social equity, leveling the vehicular playing field for people from varying backgrounds.

“There are a lot of people who can’t afford to own a car, but there are also those who want to get rid of a second car, or those who choose not to own a car — and Zipcar works very well for all of them,” Buika said.

UCSC was part of the first wave of Zipcars ever implanted onto campuses, and has since become the most heavily utilized and fastest-growing car-sharing campus program in the country, according to Buika. In the city of Santa Cruz, Zipcar counts close to 700 members, 75 percent of whom are first- or second-year UCSC students, and 10 percent of whom are non-UC-affiliated community members.

Despite the discrepancy in numbers between UCSC-affiliated users and non-affiliated ones, the campus and city have forged a powerful partnership in utilizing the Zipcar service.

“UCSC’s vice chancellor [for business and administrative services] Tom Vani wanted to make sure there were cars in the community,” Buika said. “It was important for city and campus to work together to encourage a company whose first interest is to reduce the environmental impact of car ownership. Zipcar encourages this partnership.”

The government also plays an important role in making car-sharing work, but many believe that it needs to do even more.

Malloy said that politicians and government agencies should help raise awareness about transportation alternatives like car-sharing.

“Cars have their place,” Malloy said. “But people abuse their vehicles, and the government can either educate or provide incentives to help reduce this abuse.”

Burke thinks that the government needs to move away from spending money on highways and instead start pushing citizens to seek alternative means of getting around.

“In the ’50s, the government invested mostly in highways and cars instead of financing, say, a New York-style subway for Los Angeles,” Burke said. “Now we’re paying for highway maintenance and bailing out the car industry.”

Getting through American society is largely built around owning a car. But science and technology tell as that the world of transportation is facing something completely different in the future. Zipcar and other car-sharing organizations see themselves as driving forces — both literally and figuratively — in this changing age of public transportation.

Zipcar’s CEO Scott Griffith is confident that the change is ongoing and will ultimately have a significant and positive payoff for the local community and the country — but only if we can all recognize the pace at which the world is changing.

“Americans are rethinking car ownership in a way we’ve never seen before,” he said in a recent Newsweek interview. “Fifteen years from now, one-car, one-driver just won’t work anymore.”

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