Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Zipcar's D.C. competition exceeds expectations

July 7, 2011 - 10:11 AM
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Zipcar may not reign in D.C. (Photo: Courtesy of Zipcar)

Late last month, we learned that Zipcar, the ubiquitous car-sharing service that has enjoyed a monopoly in D.C. since acquiring Flexcar in 2007, may be facing its first competition in the District. At stake are the city's 86 curbside parking spots, once offered freely to Zipcar, then rented out to the company for $200 a space last year, and now poised to be rented out for a minimum price of around $2,400 to $4,800 per year. Recent buzz suggested that Hertz would be entering the market.

But drivers, the news is in. I spoke with Scott Kubly, director of the District department of transportation's progressive transportation services administration, and he revealed that not just Zipcar, not just Connect by Hertz, but four companies in total plus a mystery individual came forward early last week to express interest in the District's precious commodity of 86 curbside parking spots. The initial deadline for bidding on the city's parking spots was July 6, though the process has been extended.

"I knew that we'd get more than one," Kubly told me. "I was surprised we got as many as we did. Four major companies showed up."

So just who were these four companies? And when will the bidding process truly be over and we find out which company has won which spots?

The four companies include the first two expected ones, of course. Zipcar definitely wants to take advantage of the spots it's enjoyed throughout recent years. Hertz also, sure enough, showed up last week to demonstrate a desire for space in the District. The two other companies in line for the bidding are Enterprise, which had launched a car-sharing program known as WeCar in 2008, and Daimler AG, which launched its own service called Car2Go also in 2008. As Kubly said, the city government experienced "quite a bit more interest than expected."

A fifth unknown party also showed up to express interest, Kubly said, but the director wasn't able to tell me more at the time. The final party was an individual and not, as far as Kubly could tell me, affiliated with a company, of which there were only the four aforementioned ones: Zipcar, Hertz, Enterprise, and Daimler.

The bidding process has been delayed, and companies will wait to make their formal bids for the parking spaces until next Friday, Kubly said. We should know how the spaces have been divided up by the end of the month.

Why the surge of interest in car-sharing? Kubly speculated on many factors affecting society that have led to renting rather than buying. He pointed to gas prices, the recession, and the culture of young people today, who cluster in cities like D.C. and lack the same passion for cars that younger generations may have demonstrated in the past. "Cars are not necessarily the aspirational purchase they once were," Kubly said. I often think of Netflix, which allows people to rent movies and TV episodes rather than buy them. No one seems to be missing the hard copies all that much now. With cars, Kubly considered the time investment. People may have a problem with investing 20 to 30 percent of their income into something that they only use five percent of the time. Consequently, the culture of car-sharing has expanded and continues to appear from new quarters. U-Haul has launched a service, for instance, as has BMW with their Drive Now program.

Eventually the culture will, most likely, expand the number of District curbside parking spots beyond the present 86, as demand rises. Kubly wants to "create a mechanism where companies can expand the number of car-sharing spaces," he said. He hopes the push and drive will come from the companies themselves. The District government will help coordinate the process and ensure that certain protocols guide the process, such as having a minimum of four spots in every ward.

D.C.'s car-sharing market is bound to change in what will likely be big ways — we'll know more precisely how by the end of the month.


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