The Secret Lives of Zipcar Drivers

Think the system runs on sharing, community and trust? You're wrong.

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Reuters

Fleura Bardhi believed what many of us do about members of car-sharing services like Zipcar. They care about the environment. They want to take cars off the road. They’ve created a trusting community to share assets that previous generations insisted on owning. This is all a very European notion, and it made sense to Bardhi, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University originally from Albania.

"It was one of those situations where we both drank the Kool-Aid on collaborative consumption, on sharing," she says, referring to colleague Giana Eckhardt, an associate professor at Suffolk University. The two have since conducted new research on Zipcar drivers that calls this narrative – and the broader idea of collaborative consumption – into question.

“We really thought this would be very pro-social, pro-collaboration, pro-environment. We were starting with this theoretical baggage,” Bardhi says. And then she and Eckhardt conducted in-depth interviews with 40 Zipcar drivers in Boston. “And when we looked at the data, we were not finding any community,” she says. "People were very utilitarian, very individualistic."

Some of these people were kind of jerks (our word, not Bardhi’s).

This Zipcar research suggests that what holds the whole thing together is self-interest, not community – and certainly not ideals about the environment, consumerism or sharing. Granted, Bardhi and Eckhardt gathered their findings among young, urban professionals and students in Boston. And so maybe Zipcar drivers in Minnesota feel and behave differently (as might members of other "collaborative consumption" models like AirBnB). But by studying Zipcar’s target demographic, Bardhi and Eckhardt’s research offers a curious glimpse into the minds (and cars) of Millennials we may be misunderstanding.

One of the most telling findings of the paper, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is that just about everyone Bardhi and Eckhardt interviewed hopes to one day own their own car. In the meantime, they feel no sense of shared ownership over Zipcars. They aren’t particularly connected to each other and don’t want to be. And they view Zipcar itself as the enforcer that keeps other drivers from screwing them over, not as the facilitator of a community.

This is all despite Zipcar’s best efforts to build exactly that, a community. Zipcar organizes local events, hosts message boards, encourages drivers to collectively name vehicles, and to wave at one another as their Mini Moxies and Miss Daisey’s pass each other on the road. Bardhi, though, says the relationship most drivers have to their Zipcar is more akin to the one you have to a hotel room: You don’t want to know anything about who had the room before you did, and you hope it gets thoroughly disinfected between uses.

"We don’t call it 'sharing,' because theoretically that has a very different meaning," she says. "Anthropologists have studied sharing more like sharing within a family, where it seems to be very moral and pro-social. But since we did not find that, we had to look for alternate names for what is this phenomenon?"

The researchers are calling this “access-based consumption,” which sounds much more antiseptic than its collaborative cousin. To underscore this shift in thinking, they uncovered Zipcar drivers actively disregarding each other, as well as the assets they’re supposed to be sharing.

"We had people who stole umbrellas from other people," Bardhi says. This turns out to be pretty common. (Here’s Mike: "People leave stuff in them all the time. I’ve got so many free umbrellas from Zipcar. It’s great!")

“We did not report it in the findings,” Bardhi says, “but we had two people who just rented Zipcars so that they could smoke pot in them. They owned their own cars, but their wives did not allow them to smoke pot, so they did it in Zipcars.”

(One of Zipcar’s six rules: Do not smoke in the car. Although we assume they are mostly thinking about cigarettes.)

Here is Chuck describing how he feels about the cars he drives that he knows will be driven by other people:

You can just beat the hell out of it; it’s not your car. Like, I don’t have to think about changing the oil; I don’t have to care whether or not the tires are flat. I don’t care about any of it; it’s not my car. And you know some magic car fairy will come and fix whatever is not right with it later. So if I destroy the suspension, so be it! Somebody will fix it. Not me.

And here is Mike again:

I’ll double park a Zipcar real quick if I’m just running into Starbuck’s or something. Which I wouldn’t want do with my car. Or, I’ll parallel a Zipcar in a tighter spot than I would with mine because it’s not mine. I’m just not worried about it.

Here is Alex, who sounds a little bitter about her fellow Zipsters.

I forgot a pea coat of mine, which was a family heirloom. And I put a listing up on the Zipcar message board for that, and no one ever responded.

To be clear, all of these people love Zipcar. It serves their purposes perfectly. And they appreciate that the company’s surveillance and penalty system generally keeps other drivers in check. They’re just not looking for a community, or even looking out for each other.

In marketing the picture of a company that’s also a community – and an environmentally and socially conscious one – Zipcar has done valiant work rebranding the notion that people who rent things are inferior to people who own them. Zipcar has helped make “access-based consumption” cool, even if that’s not what they’re calling it. But this research suggests they could maybe dispense with some of the overt community-building. It’s simply not what these drivers are looking for.

Or, as Rebecca puts it:

It’s very utilitarian, like using a wrench. I wouldn’t be like oh my God, this is the best wrench ever. It just does a job, it gets it done perfect, that’s what I need it to do. But, it doesn’t wow me or anything. It’s not like girls run up to me like oh my God, you’re a Zipcar owner, let me talk to you, you know.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.