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Car-sharing picks up speed

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.

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