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What If You Never Had to Pay for Parking at the Airport Again?

A clever new peer-to-peer car-sharing scheme makes a lot of our standard travel expenses look like a huge waste of money.


The nimble car- and ride-sharing industries have rapidly been coming up with transportation services that make the standard car-rental model – go to a fixed location, usually at an airport, argue about why you can't use a debit card, fill up the tank before you come back – look increasingly stodgy and unresponsive. It's no wonder that large national rental chains have been chasing after the innovative models pioneered by outfits like Zipcar, IGO and Lyft. This newer generation of services has found a smart niche leveraging the cars people already own, the empty seats inside of them, or even the eagerness of many people to own no car at all.

This latest idea from San Francisco-based RelayRides illustrates why legacy rental firms still remain a step behind even as they try to move into the local car-sharing and peer-to-peer business. RelayRides just unveiled a particularly tempting new take on the airport rental experience: Starting in August, car owners will be able to park for free at San Francisco International Airport in exchange for allowing RelayRides to rent out their cars while they're gone. Insurance is included, in much the same way as it works for car-sharing companies like Zipcar. The free parking even comes with a car wash and a full tank of gas.

In theory, the idea benefits everyone directly involved with the transaction: RelayRides enters a new market, functioning more like a rental company with an inventory of other peoples' cars; car owners get to eschew steep long-term airport parking rates; and the people renting these cars will pay less, too, than what's typically charged at the rental counter.

The interests that stand to lose out? If this scales up (the current proposal will start with just a 30-car lot in a single city), it will clearly eat into traditional car-rental business at the airport. The Wall Street Journal's Corporate Intelligence blog also brings up another set of potential losers:

Free long-term parking, meanwhile, could be a worrisome development to government-run and private airport parking lot operators. Parking and ground transportation provide about $2.9 billion in revenue annually to airports in the U.S. and Canada, according to a recent survey.

Of course, some of that money will be redirected rather than disappear. And you probably don't have great sympathies for private airport parking operators. But it's hard to imagine that if you're a car-owner in this situation – at least one who's willing to share your car – that you wouldn't jump on this deal.

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.