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Zipcars offer new twist on ride sharing

Two Zipcars sit outside Valparaiso University's Harre Union in designated parking spots.

Jon L. Hendricks, File | The Times

Just as many of today's young adults prefer downloading their music one song at a time rather than buying an entire CD, they also like having a car one ride at a time rather than buying one.

At least that appears to be the reason behind the popularity of the Zipcar program.

In January, Valparaiso University became the latest of more than 250 campuses to offer Zipcars to students, faculty and the public. The cars also are available in 15 major metropolitan areas in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Zipcars can be rented at dozens of locations in the Chicago area, but VU is the first in Northwest Indiana.

"It works great on campus because people are more likely to live, work and go to school in an area that is close, and they don't need a car all the time," Zipcar representative Bill Connolly said. "We also are dealing with a generation that is more inclined to try new things. This generation doesn't see car ownership the same way as the older generation."

Connolly said Zipcars also are popular with the older generations, but it is quite a departure from the way most people think of cars.

"It's kind of an 'aha' moment when they see how easy it is to walk up to the car and use it," he said. "For both students and the local community members, it's just about providing easy, convenient and cost-effective transportation. 'Wheels when you want them' is the tag line for the car."

The Zipcars program was launched in 2000 in Cambridge, Mass., and now has more than 650,000 members, who have access to more than 9,000 cars for running errands, taking trips or almost anything short of using it as a getaway car or in a demolition derby.

All 9,000 cars have their own alliterative nickname to help identify the more than 30 models that range from the Mini Cooper and Ford Focus to an Audi and a BMW 328xi. Different cars are available at different locations, and the rental fee is based on the model and other factors, including the cost of gas in that area.

VU has a Ford Focus named Florida and a Toyota Prius named Pingpong. Sometimes the nicknames reflect the area, which is why Chicago has a Mazda named Midway and a BMW named Bulls. Just for fun, it also has a Prius named Pickle Juice, Meteor the Mini Cooper, Moots the Mazda and Branciforte the BMW.

"People get very attached to the cars, and the name is a lot more fun," Connolly said. "Sometimes we run contests to name the cars. Other times, our marketing people come up with them."

Cute nicknames aside, surveys show Zipcars provide more than a ride by the half-hour. According to a story in Fast Company magazine, those who use Zipcars are much less likely to buy a car, and many sold their cars because of the service. Zipcar members are more likely to use public transit, but they also walk or bike more often.

Top that with a study that showed each Zipcar takes 15 cars off the road because of the ability for several people to share one car, and it makes it a healthier, less polluting alternative.

Zipcars have been available at Purdue University's West Lafayette campus since August at three locations with two cars each. Purdue parking manager Holly Alexander said the students asked for the service, and one to three new members are signing up daily. The only problem has been that a couple of the cars were in accidents and "off the radar for a while."

"Freshmen are not allowed to have a car unless it is needed for work or they are handicapped," Alexander said. "Right now they are rented about half the time, so there always are a couple of cars available. I've not gotten any complaints about the service. I'm already in parking, so I'm not asking for any more complaints."