- Don't expect this Zipcar Prius in Tenleytown. (Photo: Courtesy of Zipcar)
Danielle West likes using Zipcar's Prius model when taking out one of the car-sharing company's vehicles in her Tenleytown neighborhood. The 33-year-old media agency project manager has belonged to Zipcar for two years now, ever since her car was stolen. She loves the company and finds she takes out a Zipcar about once a week — sometimes when she needs to drive somewhere for dog-sitting, sometimes to take a friend to or from the airport, and sometimes because it's the weekend and she doesn't want to deal with Metro delays and changing bus lines.
As Zipcar says in their fall ad campaign, "Sometimes you just need a car."
But when West returned from a recent trip to Mexico, she discovered a change to her Zipcar service. She didn't notice initially because she had reserved cars the first two times she needed them. Then came Saturday, October 8, when West struggled for an hour to find a Zipcar in Tenleytown. Sure enough, a change had happened while she was away ... Zipcar had lost the lion's share of its District on-street parking spots. They'd once enjoyed all 86 spaces but a recent DDOT bidding war against Daimler's Car2Go and Hertz On Demand left Zipcar with only 14 spaces. Zipcar officially lost access to the spaces on October 1.
"If you're in a pinch and need a Zipcar in Tenleytown, it's not going to happen," West told me. "It was just so shocking — and then the Prius [Zipcar] was gone!"
Her favored Prius was the least expensive Zipcar option ... and now what does Zipcar have? They left the BMW. West laughs and says the BMW frustrates her, but she can't quite explain why.
West took her frustration to Twitter: "What happened to all the cars around Tenleytown?" the woman asked Zipcar's D.C. account. "Looks like you've gone from around 7 cars to 3. Is the Prius officially gone?"
Zipcar responded, telling West that they had lost spaces but that they'd "love to get that Prius back there!" West replied that the reduction seemed "severe." She told me that Zipcar began following her on Twitter after that and that she and the company have exchanged direct messages on possible parking spaces for Zipcar to add in Tenleytown. Their customer service, West said, is "amazing." West said the company had added one new one parking space since the shift but it's "a few blocks away from the Metro" and less convenient than the District street parking that Zipcar has enjoyed, for free and then for $200 a space per month as of November 2010, up until the last couple weeks. Those spots now run for thousands of dollars.
What frustrated West, in part, was the general e-mail that Zipcar sent its D.C. Zipsters about the parking changes. The message's tone reassured Zipsters, West said, and she didn't get the sense that the lost would be quite so drastic as she encountered this month. Zipcar's national spokesperson has told me that Zipcar D.C. offices "have moved the additional cars to nearby locations," suggesting that there's no real shortage. I asked the local Zipcar office for any additional information about the Tenleytown spaces — and a more accurate sense of how the parking replacement effort is going — but have yet to hear anything. Zipcar had, when news of the bidding loss emerged, stressed to their members that the loss would only affect 10% of their fleet. West wishes Zipcar had offered their members a better accounting of what to expect in their individual neighborhoods, to let locals know "that things aren't all right," but ultimately doesn't blame the company.
"I don't blame Zipcar for what they did," West told me. "I absolutely blame the District Department of Transportation — I feel Zipcar kind of got screwed. I miss Gabe Klein ... I don't understand the impetus to get these new [car-sharing] companies to come into the market."
Klein was the former director of DDOT as well as a former executive for Zipcar. His efforts helped usher in Zipcar's dominance of the D.C.car-sharing market over the last several years as it acquired around 60,000 members. West doesn't see why, when the new car-sharing companies come to occupy the District's other 70 spots, she should have to join multiple car-sharing companies. Zipcar is "well-established" and she enjoys her service there. She echoes the arguments that others have made in response to the DDOT bidding. "I'm surprised more thought wasn't given to the idea of awarding Zipcar an exclusive contract for public parking spaces in return for certain concessions, like say expanding its reach in underserved areas and keeping prices at reasonable levels," wrote City Paper's Lydia DePillis in a recent post titled "Competition Sucks." "Now, I just have to walk further to pick up a [Zip]car." West feels a similar resignation at the loss of spots.
"It almost makes you want to get a car," West reflects.
Update, 11:35 a.m.: I talked to Ellice Perez, the general manager of Zipcar D.C., who acknowledged that these numbers sound right in Tenleytown but emphasized that these shifts in spaces are not entirely new. Zipcar changes their spaces every year based on seasonality and often shuffles their number of spaces due to a decrease in driving during these chillier months of August, September, and October. To lose the DDOT spaces now, according to her, couldn't have come at a "more perfect time."
"This [change] just happened to be on a broader scale," Perez told me. "It did come together perfectly ... We replaced [the lost parking spots] based on the current demand."
Typically, Zipcar will test some spots for a couple months at a time, according to Perez, and may kill a space if it doesn't fit their needs. Such a big change as what happened recently did confuse and frustrate some Zipsters, such as West, and caused an uptick in calls asking about their Zipcar spaces, Perez indicated, but the dialogue has generally been a good one. She says that some Zipsters will e-mail in to offer condolences about the lost spots but also suggest some new ones that Zipcar might be able to use. "It's good for us to hear," Perez explained. Demand drives so much of how Zipcar calculates its need for spaces, and that demand will change frequently enough. If you have any place you'd like to see Zipcar spaces, send Zipcar D.C. an address and a phone number, and Zipcar may be able to work out a deal to create one. Perez also expressed sensitivity to Zipsters who lose favored cars (she herself is fond of some models more than others) and knows the service's members can become invested in their spaces. But changes are ongoing and always happen to a greater or less extent over time.
As West says above, Zipcar has a dedicated communications and customer service branch. I don't see their presence in the District weakening any time soon, despite the bids and friction over the recent change.