Is Cincinnati Ready to Zip It?

Carrie Wood doesn't mince words about Zipcar, the award-winning car sharing program she used while living in New York City.

"It's kind of awesome," she said. "I found it very convenient."

Like a number of other recent Cincinnati transplants, Wood, a staff attorney for the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati, is sharing memories of her Zipcar experience with local friends and colleagues. It's a revolutionary concept for folks in the car-loving, sprawled Midwestern city: members share a fleet of conveniently parked cars and trucks throughout an urban area, often reserving one less than a day in advance via iPhone.  Some of them get it. And some of them would like to see Zipcars in Cincinnati.

"If I could bring one thing with me, it would be Zipcar," said Seattle resident and soon-to-be Cincinnati resident Patricia Bittner. "We're just so used to it, we're kind of spoiled by it."

Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase said she's not surprised by the enthusiasm  -  and broad spread -of the company she helped launch.

"It's always had a high percentage of growth since it's inception," she said. And though she left the company eight years ago to pursue other projects, she said she still feels proud to see the company flourishing.

"It's satisfying to see they're being good stewards of the brand and concept," she said.

Both Wood and Bittner praised the Zipcar system. Whereas a person renting a car from a traditional rental office would have to go to that office, sign paperwork and leave a credit card imprint before driving away, Zipcar members conduct the entire rental process online or via mobile device. Members go through a driving record screening process and then receive "Zipcards," personalized ID cards that unlock the rented cars. Since only the person who has reserved a car can unlock it with his or her Zipcard, the keys stay in the car. The cars, ranging from subcompact hybrids to small pickup trucks and SUVs, stay parked in reserved spots in parking garages and on streets near easily accessible bus and train stops. Billing is handled electronically, and all rentals, from as short as an hour to multiple days, include insurance and gas.

"It was perfect for those short little trips," said Wood, who added that she often used Zipcars to visit friends in Long Island, rather than taking a much longer train ride to see them.

Bittner explained that her family of five owns a car, but rarely uses it; they combine a walkable neighborhood with smart use of public transportation - and the occasional Zipcar rental - to keep the aging family vehicle in the garage most of the time.

"A lot of (Zipcar users) don't own any car at all," she said.

Statistics provided by Zipcar suggest that one of their cars in a city takes more than 15 privately owned cars off the street. For Cincinnati commuters tired of the endless grind up or down I-75 and I-71 during rush hour, that reduction in congestion may sound like a blessing. But could Zipcar work in the Queen City?

That depends on a lot of factors, said Zipcar spokesman John Williams. He explained that, in some large metropolitan areas, the choice is obvious.

"You clearly have high density, great public transportation, all the things that make owning a car optional," he said.

Cincinnati, with its sprawling suburbs out of reach of all but a few bus lines, doesn't fall into that target market category. It's more the realm of cities like New York and Los Angeles, places where masses of the population live, work and play in a congested downtown area. Owning a car in New York is an expensive luxury; for many Cincinnati residents, it's a necessity.

But there's another growing market for Zipcar that could definitely include Cincinnati and its surrounding metro area.

"We're seeing more and more entries (into new markets) in concert with major universities," said Williams. "We're finding in smaller markets, that if you can go in in concert with a university, that's a really good way to build a foundation."

It makes sense: large numbers of money-conscious residents, many wanting to explore the local area, live in a densely populated area. Some of them do so without cars, but many like the convenience, or at least the lifeline of a quick and easy way to go home on the weekend. Combine this with the area of parking space at many urban universities, and a Zipcar program starts to make sense for even smaller institutions of higher learning.

And if you've parked on or near the UC campus (or paid several hundred dollars a quarter for parking garage access), you know there's at least one local university that fits the target criteria.

Zipcar has already partnered with Ohio State to offer cars on its campus, and Williams said the company maintains programs with as few as two or three cars on some smaller schools' campuses. The company typically coordinates with the university to have local contractors maintain the cars, so Zipcar's presence is limited to online transactions and the occasional visit by marketing staff members.

"The model is pretty self-sufficient," he said, adding that it's easy for the company to scale up from, say, a university-only setting to an entire city, if demand rises. Just add more cars. "It's a pretty elastic business model."

With neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and Northside seeing an influx of revitalization-minded residents, and the city growing ever closer to streetcar and light rail projects, Cincinnati could eventually offer the public transportation infrastructure and walkable communities that make Zipcar a perfect fit. But until then, residents looking for a way to reduce costs (Zipcar claims its members can save up to $600 a month without the hassles of car ownership) and lighten their carbon footprint may want to keep an eye on the local universities; that's probably where this award-winning service is most likely to appear first.

Wood received a car from a family member when she moved to Cincinnati, and said a local Zipcar startup would be nice, but not enough to get her to sell the hand-me-down.

"But if I didn't have a car, absolutely," she said when asked if she'd use Zipcar again.

Bittner said she'd love to be more proactive by finding some grass-roots way to get the company to look at Cincinnati. In response to her inquiry about how to bring Zipcar to Cincinnati, she said the company suggested the best best way to let them know your neighborhood is ready for Zipcar is to have residents add their address to their "notify me page."  Zipcar's Williams said that public input is one of many factors the company considers.

So, is Cincinnati ready for Zipcar? Tell us on our Facebook page!

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All Photography Copyright Brian Cohen, of sister publication PopCity

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