An Introduction to Flexcar

What is Flexcar?

Flexcar is a carsharing service. We own and manage a large, fully-automated, self-service fleet of fuel efficient cars, trucks and vans. Businesses and individuals pay a modest annual membership fee, and then use an online reservation system and a “keycard” (proximity card) to enter and drive the vehicle that they reserved.

Unlike traditional car rental, carsharing is either hourly or by-the-day. Also, Flexcar’s pricing is all-inclusive. Rates include full insurance, gas and unlimited miles. Members typically cancel their own car insurance because it’s included in Flexcar’s rates. Upon joining, they cancel their insurance and sell their personal vehicle, thereby eliminating what is typically their second largest household expense: their car.

AAA estimates that it costs over $500/month to own a car (assumptions: new Taurus every 5 years; full insurance, etc). AAA’s figures, by the way, do NOT include Downtown parking. Instead of driving everywhere, Flexcar members rely primarily on public transportation, bikes and their feet, and only drive when they really need to (e.g. to get a big load of groceries, go to the Coast for a weekend, go to a meeting in the suburbs, etc.).

If a Flexcar member who doesn’t have car insurance goes to a rental car agency, they walk in expecting to pay something around $25 a day, but they eventually end up with a bill totaling closer to $60/day. Why? Insurance costs extra. Gas also costs extra. And if you’re an hour late, you get charged for an extra day.

With Flexcar, by comparison, the cost includes everything: insurance, gas, maintenance, cleaning, and a reserved parking space wherever you picked up (and later drop off) the car.

Also, with Flexcar, you can reserve & use a car, truck or van in 1/2 hour increments. So if you need a car for 3.5 hours, you’re not stuck paying for 24. Also, you don’t have to stand in line, sign a lot of paperwork, fill the tank (unless it drops below a quarter tank, in which case you fill it with an in-vehicle gas credit card). Once approved as a member (requirements include a reasonable driving record to be approved) you get a member number, and PIN and an electronic “keycard,” which gets you in the car. (Your PIN is also needed in order to enable your chosen car’s ignition).

How much does it cost?

Hourly: $7 – $9
Daily: $35 – $90 ($56 is pretty typical).

These prices include everything – gas, insurance, an unlimited miles. The daily rates very depending on the vehicle-specific “daily cap,” (the maximum charge for a 24 hour calendar day) which is either 5 hours, 7 hours or 10 hours.

Many Flexcar members go weeks without needing a car; others drive every few days. Some drive once a month, to get out of town for a weekend. Others drive the same vehicle (the one located nearest their home) every weekend. Some even have a recurring reservation (e.g. every Saturday at 10AM to 1PM) on the same vehicle for the next several months. For example, every Saturday at 10, a member might go to “their” Flexcar, open it with their keycard, enter their PIN, run all of their errands for the week, return the car, lock it up, and leave it for the next driver.

The incremental cost structure ($40 a year for a membership; no additional cost unless you actually drive) gives members a powerful (approx. $8/hour) incentive to drive judiciously. Over time, members tend to ride bikes, walk and ride transit more & more, and drive less.

What about availability?

Flexcar vehicles are usually driven 4-8 hours/day. 6 hours is pretty typical. When all of the vehicles in a neighborhood reach that threshold, we add more cars, thus keeping availability in sync with demand. 6 hours/day sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that this is over a 24 hour calendar day. So are cars are actually only about 25% utilized. Midday is “peak time,” so we recommend reserving a few hours in advance for a lunch meeting, but most members still make their reservations at the very last minute. This means that they sometimes don’t get the car closest to them, but with an ever-denser network, there’s almost never a problem getting a Flexcar somewhere nearby.

Who uses Flexcar?

150+ private companies use Flexcar. They find it more convenient and cost effective than owning, insuring, maintaining and parking underutilized fleet cars. About 6 public agencies in Portland/Vancouver also use Flexcar’s service. Demographically speaking, Flexcar members (close to 6k of them in Portland; 30k nationwide) are typically well-educated transit riders who live and/or work in the City. About 1/3 don’t own a car; the rest use Flexcar as an occasional second car. Our “second car” clientele use our service because it’s simply more convenient (self service, incremental, predictable pricing, no paperwork, decentralized) than renting a car.

7 responses to “An Introduction to Flexcar”

  1. In our family, Flexcar is the “third car”. We added a third driver when our son turned 16 (and the fourth driver will be having her birthday soon), but we stuck with two cars (I still hope to get it down to one sooner or later). On the few occassions when all three of us need a car, I rent a Flexcar, usually only once or twice a month.

    A big plus Steve doesn’t mention is vehicle selection. If we had a 3rd car, it would certainly be a small sedan (maybe a Prius). With Flexcar, I can rent the vehicle I need for a task, whether that’s a minivan or a pickup.

    I can also say that from my perspective as a former neighborhood transportation chair, neighborhoods love Flexcar because it reduces auto ownership and takes pressure off on-street parking.

  2. Steve will have to answer for Flexcar, but from my point of view Zipcar’s arrival will have a several effects:

    1) Competition will have benefits for carsharing users like myself (after all, these are for-profit companies that have to compete in the marketplace).

    2) The extra capital investment and competition will probably grow the overall usage.

    3) The City will need to come up with a policy for allocating on-street locations for these vehicles. To date, the City has viewed this in a ‘prototype’ mode and is not charging the company (indeed, as in my previous comment, a case can be made that there is a public benefit). But even if the City does not start charging for the spaces, they will at least have to come up with a policy to equitably allocate the spaces.

  3. Carsharing really has a potential in cutting down on pollution when people drive cars for their biggest need. Look at the types of people who have Subarus or even Expeditions because they occasionally go out into the woods, or pickup trucks to occasionally haul pieces of furniture. But they drive them ever day to and from work, carrying themselves. I’d actually like to see Flexcar have more of a variety of cars, from small easy to park cars like the Beetle up to bigger pickups, vans, and SUVs. The San Francisco City CarShare is a good model in this regard.

    I think that the goal to eliminate personal car ownership is optimistic. But for the many two person households and families that are out there, where essentially one car is used at a time on the weekends, then there is a really good market. However, Flexcar needs to attack at the gas and insurance angle since for many of these groups they just use the old “clunker” as the secondary car, and ten year old cars are already depreciated out and have low insurance rates.

  4. Hank-

    Thanks for the input. Flexcar recently started diversifying its fleet with 4 wheel drive Honda Elements (there are currently 3 in the fleet), pickup trucks (3), minivans (11), and convertibles (we had one until recently, and will add at least one back soon). We’re doing this largely to tap the “sometimes I need a truck/van/date car” market. In other words, we’re pursuing “second car” carsharing customers.

    With respect to the notion of “replacing personal car ownership,” about 25% of our personal members say that they already live “car free”. (This figure should be taken with a grain of salt, it’s from an unscientific member survey). Still, we know anecdotally that many of our members — especially those who live in Northwest Portland, the Pearl District and Downtown, where parking a car is an expensive hassle — have given up their personal vehicles, and use Flexcar for all of their driving needs. Given that many people are moving into urban areas where transit works well, and they live in close proximity to most of their daily needs, “car free” members will, over time, account for more & more of our membership. In less dense areas, we expect to remain the “occasional second (or even third) vehicle”.

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