What’s Car Sharing Really Like?

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Last year, the average U.S. household paid $4,155 gassing up their cars, and when gas, insurance, depreciation, vehicle payments, and other expenses are tallied up, the average car costs $8,776 annually. These costs will only increase now that prices for gas and new cars have risen substantially. There’s an obvious alternative to owning a car—not owning a car—and the rise of car sharing makes it increasingly feasible.

Car sharing is not a new concept. TIME was doing features on Zipcar back in 2006, when it was already the world’s biggest car-sharing service. Back then, it could boast of 1,100 vehicles in its U.S. fleet, and roughly 50,000 members. Now, Zipcar has 673,000 members (or “Zipsters,” but I’m not sure anyone other than the folks in the Zipcar marketing department use that term), along with 8,900 vehicles.

While Zipcar dominates the car-sharing scene in the same way that Groupon is the 800-pound gorilla of daily deals, both have plenty of competition. Zipcar must compete with other traditional car-sharing businesses, most of which are regional players like the San Francisco Bay Area’s City CarShare, as well as peer-to-peer car sharing such as RelayRides and Getaround, in which customers rent cars for as little as $3 an hour from everyday car owners, not some official “business.” Major rental companies, including Hertz and Enterprise have also begun offering car-sharing or rent-by-the-hour services.

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As Getaround’s founder and director of marketing Jessica Scorpio—who is in her mid-20s—likes to say, most cars sit idle 92% of the time. That’s one argument for car sharing rather than car ownership; the former is often just a lot more efficient and cost-effective. Among the other forces pushing car-sharing further into the mainstream are the rising costs of gas and car ownership, as well as indications that today’s younger generations are less interested in cars, sometimes to the extent that they don’t even bother to get driver’s licenses.

While car-sharing has grown exponentially over the years, the nitty-gritty of how it works—including the hassles—is still somewhat of an unknown to the vast majority of drivers who have never given Zipcar, RelayRides, or any other of these services a shot. With that in mind, the trade publication Auto Rental News recently chatted up members of car-sharing services to get real-life feedback on the experience.

Compared to car ownership, the biggest positive of car-sharing is probably that it saves money. Potentially, a ton of money. One former car owner says, “Now, I spend less on driving than I did on insurance alone, let alone maintenance and gas.” If you only need a car for big trips to the grocery story or the occasional afternoon excursion, it’s wise to consider sharing rather than ownership. Zipcar has also released studies showing that car-sharing is healthy: After joining Zipcar and getting rid of their cars, members report that they walk and bike more—because (duh) they have to.

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But car sharing certainly isn’t for everybody. If driving is the only option for a daily commute, forget about it. Having kids complicates matters too because, assuming you don’t live in a big city with excellent public transportation options, they’ll need to be driven to and picked up from all sorts of birthday parties, practices, and other activities. And when you have kids, every trip to the grocery store is more likely to be a big trip to the grocery store.

Because of money, credit, and lifestyle issues, car-sharing tends to skew toward the younger demographic. Zipcar is especially popular in college towns and on college campuses. Because of limited supply, it’s difficult to find a car during certain peak-demand times, which for this group includes Thanksgiving weekend and finals weeks at the end of each semester. For that matter, most weekends tend to get booked early, which is complicated because—as you may recall from your own college days—it’s a rarity to think and plan all that far ahead of time.

Many car sharers like the idea that they’re taking a greener approach to transportation compared to typical car ownership. Zipcar, which recently launched an electric vehicle pilot program with the introduction of Chevy Volts in Illinois, pumps up the idea that it is “transforming urban life,” and “make life more rewarding, sustainable and affordable.” The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that City CarShare, whose fleet currently consists of one-fourth Prius hybrids, is making a push to add electric cars.

(MORE: It’s Not Easy Being Green: Why Gen Y Can’t Be Bothered to Save the Planet)

The problem is that many drivers don’t know what to make of electric vehicles:

“There’s two kinds of members,” said Mike Harrigan, who runs City CarShare’s plug-in vehicle program. “There are the ones who are totally into EVs and understand what to do, and there are people who are totally oblivious, don’t even realize it’s an electric car and drive off to Sacramento.”

Indeed, one CarShare member actually did attempt to drive a Nissan Leaf, which has a range of 73 miles on a charge, from the Bay area to Sacramento, which is 88 miles away.

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For now at least, incorporating purely electric cars like the Leaf into a car-sharing service is problematic. It’s hard to share a car during the several hours of every day when it needs to sit idle, plugged into a recharger.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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