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Car-sharing picks up speed

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.

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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.

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