Ever wish you could enjoy the benefits of having a car without the financial drain of gas, monthly car payments and maintenance? Car-sharing may be the answer for you, and several companies around the country are making it possible.

The two national car-sharing players,

Zipcar and

Flexcar, operate mostly in urban centers such as Boston and Chicago and are based on a premise: Most people pay for far more car than they actually need.

Both Zipcar and Flexcar are membership services that offer a comprehensive alternative to car ownership. Members go online or get on the phone to reserve cars that will be parked in specific places, usually reserved parking spots close to their homes, for specific time slots. When the time comes, they simply walk to where the cars are parked and wave their membership cards over readers installed in the cars. The doors unlock, and the member now has a car.

Both services cost about $50 per month for an annual membership and $9 an hour to use a car, and both are all-inclusive, meaning that every rental includes insurance, gas and maintenance. (Members must be 21 and have a valid license and a clean driving record.) The biggest difference between the two is the area of service. Flexcar is concentrated mostly on the West Coast (Seattle; San Francisco; Los Angeles; San Diego; Portland, Ore., and Atlanta and Washington, D.C.) while Zipcar operates primarily on the East Coast and in the Midwest (Minneapolis; Chicago; Massachusetts; metro D.C.; Ann Arbor, Mich., and others).

But one thing both companies share is fast growth and buzz as more people sign on to car-sharing every month. Currently there are about 75,000 car-sharers in the country, and Zipcar says it adds 2,500 new members each month. Even traditional car-rental companies such as Enterprise have gotten in on the action, offering hourly car rentals in some of the same urban and college-town markets now serviced by Flexcar and Zipcar.

“It’s a small part of our business,” Enterprise spokeswoman Christy Conrad says, “but it speaks to a larger trend of people renting outside of airports and other traditional locations. Neighborhood rentals are now the largest segment of the rental market. People use our cars for all kinds of things — going to home improvement stores to get mulch or taking a big group to soccer games.”

Cost, environment, simplicity

So what is fueling the growth of short-term rental? One important factor is the growing cost of owning a car. The average cost of a new automobile is now $28,600, according to the “Auto Affordability Index,” published by Detroit-based Comerica Bank, a figure that only 10 years ago would have bought an entry-level luxury car. The prices of gas, insurance and maintenance have also risen significantly in the last decade.

The Automobile Association of America estimates that the yearly operating cost for a medium-sized sedan driven at least 10,000 miles per year adds up to $6,242 per year. If you have a car-loan payment and consider the high cost of parking in the urban centers where car-sharing is offered, drivers with a new car are looking at a total monthly cost in excess of $1,000. In contrast, 15 hours of Zipcar or Flexcar driving per week, more than most users will ever need, will cost you $540 per month. Both Zipcar and Flexcar offer monthly memberships that can push this cost down even more.

But saving money isn’t the only reason people are plugging into car-sharing. For some consumers, green issues such as global warming, national energy independence and urban sprawl are increasingly important. The savings in pollution, gas and parking spaces created by fuel-efficient Zipcars and Flexcars appeal to them. Some municipalities are sponsoring their own nonprofit car-sharing services, such as Chicago’s

I-GO service, in an attempt to cut down on traffic congestion and create space in parking lots.

Car-sharing also appeals to the large segment of drivers who just don’t like spending the time and effort required to properly maintain a modern automobile. More than a few car owners wait 8,000 miles between oil changes and ride their tires down to the steel belts because they forget regular rotations. Car-sharing offers these consumers a way out of the chores of car maintenance.

Chicago resident and I-GO customer Laura Houston says car-sharing simplifies her life. “A lot of the little things you have to deal with when you own your own car are taken care of. Insurance, gas and maintenance are all included and the cars are always clean and ready to go.”

Car-sharing users also report that they walk and bicycle more, affecting their waistlines as much as their bottom lines.

No doggy in the window

Is car-sharing right for you? The answer mostly depends on your location and your driving habits. Drivers living in rural or suburban areas (most of the country) aren’t serviced by either of the major car-sharing clubs or Enterprise’s short-term rental programs.

“Car-sharing works best in dense urban areas where there is good connectivity with public transit and walkable amenities like supermarkets, restaurants and dry cleaners,” Flexcar representative John Williams says.

For drivers who, on average, spend more than three hours a day in the car, take trips that last more than 24 hours or drive more than 150 miles in a single day routinely, it doesn’t make much sense, both in terms of money and convenience.

“If I have to take an overnight trip, even at $6 an hour it can get expensive,” Houston says of the I-GO plan.

Also, car-sharing autos often come with restrictions such as no smoking and no pets outside of pet carriers. Families with small children should also take note that Zipcars and Flexcars do not come with child carriers, and reserving larger cars or minivans costs more than reserving the economy cars that make up the bulk of car-sharing fleets, eroding some of the savings of car-sharing. And for those of us who have cars packed with sunglasses, cell-phone chargers and CDs, the idea of having to pack all that stuff between cars may seem a little intimidating.

Still, for the many consumers living in urban centers and college towns who spend little time in their cars and don’t need or want the hassle and expense of owning their own car, car-sharing is a cost-effective option. And many living in areas where car-sharing is common will have reason to rejoice in the reduction in traffic, air-pollution and parking pains that will no doubt accompany the rise of car-sharing.

Claes Bell is a freelance writer based in Lake Worth, Fla.

Promoted Stories