Monday, December 15, 2008

White Bikes and Zipcars

It is 10:50 Tuesday morning. Sally Druthers is just getting out of a class on "Conservation Biology and Ecological Sustainability" at Arizona State University. Suddenly she realizes that when she left home to peddle to campus earlier this morning, she left the oven on; not only will the soy-roast she is cooking for dinner be ruined by the time she gets home this afternoon, the house will probably be filled with smoke if not consumed in flames.

Sally whips out her Blackberry telephone and makes a quick call--she completes a simple form. Then she bikes two blocks to pick up the zipcar she has just signed up for. She will drive it home to turn off the oven and save the day (and the soy-roast) and then back to campus and leave the car where she found it (where her bike awaits her). The total trip will take her less than an hour and cost her $7.00, which includes gas, insurance--in fact, that one small fee includes everything she needs for the quick drive home and back, even roadside emergency assistance if she needs it. So Sally does not need to own a car of her own; she participates in a more ecologically sensible arrangement, effectively sharing a single car with many other people.

Such is the wonder of zipcars. Sally filled out an application several months ago so they have her driver's license and credit card on file. She would have paid a $35 membership fee for the first year, but that was waived because she got a special deal (because she is a sustainability major).

Zipcar was founded in 1999 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company now operates in a couple of dozen cities and college campuses in the U.S. and Canada, and has some 200,000 user members.

Zipcars have an historical antecedent in the famous White Bikes of Amsterdam. In the early 1960s an ecologically minded philanthropist named Luud Schimmelpenninck put a fleet of humble, utility bikes, all painted white, out on the streets of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. People were supposed to use them once as they needed them, and then leave them for someone else. However, a high rate of theft and vandalism brought the project to a halt after only a few months. Numerous subsequent attempts have been made, mostly in cities in Europe, and some have been quite successful. In some cases, special bikes have been manufactured for a project so that they could not be broken up and sold for parts. And substantial publicity campaigns have improved responsible public acceptance and use.

Today, there are several cities in Europe and a few in the United States, including Washington D.C., Chapel Hill/Carrboro, NC, and Ft. Collins, CO that have free-bike programs. But over the past ten years, many more have come to host programs offering shared zipcars.