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Me and the Mini. A Zipcar love story


It's 3:30am on a rainy Nuit Blanche night. I leave my friends. I'm wet and I have a date waiting for me. I walk from the Fog installation to Huron and College Street. I'm meeting my date at a small parking lot on the south side of the street. The streets are empty and all I hear are my heels clicking on the payment and my heart beating. I approach the lot and there is my date, waiting for me, the red Mini Cooper. I have always loved the Mini and I've wanted to drive the new Mini by BMW since they hit the market. I walk around the car admiring its sleek package. I open the door and sit down. If you were a man I'd be ripping your clothes off now, I think to myself as I caress the steering wheel. You and I are going to have a lot of fun together, I whisper as I put it into drive.

I spent the day with my date. The first stop was the grocery store. Minis are small but when you are shopping for one person, the size is fine. There are four seats in the car but you can only seat two adults comfortably. I drop off the groceries at home and I'm off to see my barber at Keele and Sheppard. After the haircut, my final stop is Richmond Hill to visit my parents.

The Mini is a pleasure to drive, even in traffic. Road rage that normally consumes me when driving was non-existent. I was having so much fun. That's not an easy thing to accomplish, especially with the traffic in Richmond Hill. I returned home via the DVP, not my usual route, but I needed to see this car on the highway. It was fun. I returned my date to our meeting spot and when home via the streetcar.

I had the opportunity to try out the newest car sharing service in Toronto, Zipcar. They are the American owned competition to AutoShare. I am a downtown dweller. I work in the Financial District and getting home is a twenty minute subway ride. The TTC services most of my traveling needs, but occasionally things would be much easier if I had access to a car. The Zipcar service is an automated system. I submitted my application on their secure website. The longest part of the sign up process is waiting for the insurance approval, which took two days. The Zipcard arrived a few days later and before the insurance approval.

The Zipcard is not only a membership card; it's the key to the Zipcar. Each Zipcar is equipped with a card reader that when used with a Zipcard unlocks and allows the car to operate. Conveniently, the keys are located adjacent to the steering wheel inside the Zipcar. The car won't operate if it the Zipcard hasn't opened the doors. This makes them lousy targets for car thieves. Zipcards can only open the specified Zipcar during the time reserved. The cards utilize latest RFID technology and all necessary usage stats are automatically reported.

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The Zipcar fleet is all new vehicles. It includes environmentally friendly cars like the Prius Hybrid, Mazda 3 and the Mini Cooper. Utility vehicles are important to a car sharing service; Zipcar has the Honda Element and the Toyota Tacoma pick up trucks for larger loads. The Volvo S40 rounds out the fleet for those wanting a premium car. Toronto has over 100 vehicles and the service is spreading out to the North, East and West. New locations are Yonge/Finch and Riverdale. There will be an additional 50 vehicles in the city by the end of 2006.

Zipcar membership grants the holder access to all vehicles in any Zipcar city in North America. Major urban centers like Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco all have the service. Members must be at least 21 years of age and have a clean driving record. Different membership plans are available to accommodate all levels of usage. Frequent users can take advantage of the Extra Value Plans. The benefits include a waived annual membership fee and lower hourly and daily rates. All memberships are subject to a one time application fee. Upon approval, you receive $50 in free driving credits. There is no deposit and a 30 day cancellation period is available. University of Toronto students can benefit from the partnership between the school and Zipcar. Students and faculty will have access to cars on campus at a reduced membership rate. Similar programs are running in 30 colleges in the States.

Rates start at $60/day and $11/hour, which includes insurance, gas and 150 free km per 24 reservation. Business users have reduced rates. Zipcars come with a gas card in the event you need to fill up during the reservation

Zipcar started in 1999. The founders were in Berlin and saw car sharing in practice. They decided to bring it to North America and use state of the art wireless technology to improve the service. It is now North America's largest car sharing service with 70,000 consumer and business drivers. There are 1,800 vehicles in 12 states and provinces. Zipcar boasts a 10% adoption rate in metropolitan areas and expect a similar rate in Toronto.

I talked to Saul Colt, Zipcar's Toronto Marketing Manager. I was interested in why Toronto became the next Zipcar city. He informed me that Toronto has all the factors that Zipcar looks for in an expansion city. There is a lot of new development, particularly condominiums. Traffic issues also played a large part in the decision. The last factor was size. Toronto is a large enough city to sustain the service. I also asked about expansion of the service within the city. The downtown core is well covered but the outlying areas are underrepresented. Saul talked about the expansion into the northern and eastern parts of the city (Yonge/Finch and Riverdale). There are plans to increase the number of cars in these underrepresented areas. I will be glad when they have some cars in the Dufferin Grove area.

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I talked to Zipcar members, both business and consumer. They all expressed how easy it is to reserve a car. Customer service was highly rated. Members enjoyed the fact that they didn't need to contact customer service most of the time. They chose the Zipcar service for convenience and rates. All members felt that owning a car is inconvenient and expensive however, access to a car was desirable.

I have used the Zipcar service more than I thought I would have. It's very easy to find and reserve a car, even at the last minute. For example, I took a Volvo S40 to Muzik to pick up my fashion week pass while on lunch. It was cheaper and faster to take the Zipcar than a cab. Just this past Saturday I reserved the Mini at 1:45pm for a 2:00pm reservation. I needed to get to Vaughn Mills mall to purchase a clothing steamer on sale. I reap the benefits of convenient transportation but none of the hassles of car ownership.

images: Anita Clarke, Zipcar.com


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