BY KRISTEN HALL-GEISLER
Back in 1998, when the Pearl District was still transitioning from Drugstore Cowboy to art-gallery central, Dave Brook launched CarShare Portland. It was the first car-sharing business in the country — only Switzerland and Germany had similar programs at the time — and it had exactly one car to share.
The CarShare Portland fleet quickly grew to 20 cars to meet demand, and the idea of sharing a car rather than owning one seemed viable. So much so that in the year 2000 Zipcar was started in Boston and FlexCar in Seattle. FlexCar bought CarShare Portland not long after, and then Zipcar merged with FlexCar in 2007, taking the zippier name.
From 2007 to 2011, Zipcar grew from 140,000 members to 673,000, with revenue in 2011 totaling $242 million and offices in two dozen cities in North America and the United Kingdom (Zipcar does not release city-specific numbers, only global totals). So from its humble Portland beginnings, a worldwide car-sharing industry began — a market that is projected to reach $10 billion globally, according to industry insiders.
There’s still room for growth, even in car sharing’s hometown. Zipcar has 250 cars (30 different makes and models) in its Portland fleet at 175 designated parking spaces throughout the city. “The active lifestyle in Portland resulted in some of our cars having bike racks or forest passes included,” says Jeremy Nelson, general manager of Zipcar’s Portland office. “A lot of our Portland members also gravitate toward trucks.”
To further meet that demand, in August the company rolled out its Zipvan service in Portland, which gives members access to full-size cargo vans. Besides helping individuals move bulky items, small businesses can use the vans to make deliveries.
Members of Zipcar generally take the vehicles for longer periods of time, likely because of the pricing structure. In addition to the either annual or monthly membership fees, there is an hourly rate, a day rate and a reduced overnight rate. Insurance and fuel are included with membership, and parking is paid for only in Zipcar spaces. Portland’s decades-long reputation for alternative transportation is holding up, thanks in part to car sharing. In August Katie Stafford, communications manager of Car2Go, sat in on a discussion of future cities in Washington, D.C., which included transportation infrastructure. Portland was mentioned as having the best practices in this arena, in the same breath as Paris. “Portland understands urban planning really well,” says Stafford. She says car sharing is one part of the transportation puzzle in an urban setting, along with everything from buses to walking.
Car2Go, a Daimler company, is the newest of the car-sharing services, having its start in Ulm, Germany, and Austin, Texas, in 2008. It opened its Portland service in April 2012 and had already signed up 6,000 members by July that same year. To compare, Stafford says the Washington, D.C., office opened one week before the Portland office, and it had 8,500 members by August in a metro area with more than twice the population. She acknowledged that Portland’s history with car sharing, particularly Zipcar, paved the way for Car2Go’s early growth.