Craig Keller/Chicago's I-Go

By operating as nonprofits, smaller shared vehicle services are expanding their reach

Zipcar has revolutionized the concept of car-sharing, inventing a niche between pricey rentals and public transit that caters to families, city-dwellers, and university students who can’t – or don’t want – to commit to owning a vehicle outright. The company has taught a generation of drivers that sharing cars with strangers isn’t as hard as it sounds, and that communal car use can reliably get people where they need to go.

By comparison, the whole idea implies, everything about owning your own car – paying its gas, its insurance, its upkeep and its monthly premium, not to mention finding a place to put it – is laughably inefficient.

As this thinking moves further into the mainstream, more cities are testing corollary nonprofit models that could make car-sharing even more accessible, both to a broader demographic and to a geographic footprint outside Zipcar’s big cities and college campuses. The San Francisco Bay Area has a long-running Zipcar-like nonprofit, as do Chicago and Boulder, Colorado. And Syracuse, which launched its program with the aid of a $150,000 grant from the state DOT and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, has an expanding fleet.

CuseCar, which is run by a local sustainability trust fund in Syracuse, just completed an assessment [PDF] of its first years for the program’s R&D funders at the state level. With a handful of Priuses and about a hundred members, CuseCar logged 1,500 trips and nearly 28,000 miles from 2008 through March of this year. No one pays more than $60 for a full 24-hours of use, and hourly rates go as low as $5.95 (Zipcar prices vary by location, but are generally a several bucks pricier by the hour and sometimes much more on the weekend).

“We’re not driven by dollars per share per quarter,” says Al Stirpe, the executive director of Synapse Sustainability Trust, which runs the program. “We’re more driven by the mission of lowering our carbon footprint and reducing the numbers of vehicles that come into the city.”

The nonprofit model, Stirpe says, has given CuseCar the space to try out some strange (and ultimately not super-successful) ideas. CuseCar has toyed with integrating a valet service to the airport, a drunk-bus ride for late-night revelers, and even an “ambassadors” program where well-dressed and knowledgeable CuseCar members could pick up out-of-town job applicants for local businesses in a stylish hybrid (CuseCar’s community backers are also worried about local issues like brain-drain of college graduates who leave Syracuse as soon as they're done with school).

Among its more hopeful ideas, Synapse Sustainability Trust secured grant funding to install electric vehicle charging stations around town, which could soon be integrated with CuseCar’s two plug-in Priuses.

Philadelphia had a similarly novel nonprofit that offered debit-card billing to accommodate low-income users, although it was bought out last month by Enterprise. And Chicago’s system has an innovative partnership with the city’s public transit system, reinforcing the broader goals of universal and affordable transportation that are farther from a for-profit car-share’s mission.

All of this isn’t to say that nonprofits are inherently more effective, or more promising than their profit-making cousins. But they offer an opportunity for communities that haven’t yet been deemed profitable by providers like Zipcar, or that envision a more expansive mission than national rental companies want to tackle. And the more cities that do this, the easier it is to set up. CuseCar, for instance, had no trouble convincing its insurance company that it needed a policy covering a hundred or so random people to share cars for which none of them was registered. Ithaca had already asked

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