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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.

My Commute: Chris Smith

Editor’s Note: We hope to make ‘My Commute’ or ‘My Trip’ a regular Sunday feature. We’re looking for stories of how people get around the region in creative or noteworthy ways.

Readers are invited to submit their stories to

Perhaps the most salient feature of my commute is that most days, I don’t! I live in NW Portland and work for the Xerox Office Group in Wilsonville. Four days out of five, I telecommute from my home (or anywhere else I can find a high-speed connection for my laptop).

But you have to see your co-workers sometimes, and Thursdays are staff meeting day for me.

Since I haven’t seen much of my car (a Geo Metro) since my step-son turned 17 (he uses it to commute to school and work) my Thursday commute trip is decidely multi-modal.

In the morning, I hop on my bike (a very heavy cruiser, but with fenders and a chain guard making it great for street clothes) and pedal down (literally a slight downhill – about 1.5 miles) to the Pearl district, where I pick up the TriMet #96 at the start of the transit mall. Some mornings the two bike racks fill up at the first stop!

45 minutes and $1.70 later (actually, I buy the 10-ticket books and it’s a little cheaper), I’ve read the morning papers and am at Commerce Circle at the end of the line. Wilsonville has done a great job of putting in bike lanes as they have redeveloped their streets, so another quick pedal (about 2.5 miles) across the freeway and I’m at my desk at Xerox (bike lockers available, but since I’m only doing this one day a week, I just use the rack by the door). A total of 4 miles of light pedaling mean I’m not sweaty and don’t need a shower, I can go right to staff meeting.

At the end of the day, the headphones go on to catch the news on NPR and I make use of another great transit system, SMART (South Metro Area Rapid Transit). The SMART 201 line picks me up at my office and deposits me and my cruiser at the Barbur Transit Center 30 minutes later – and it’s FREE.

From the Transit Center, it’s a half mile downhill (with bike lane), a slight uphill (intermitant bike lanes) and then downhill for five miles into downtown. If I want to get some exercise I can push myself here. Then there’s the adrenalin rush at the two bridges on Barbur where the bike lane goes away and I have to merge back into traffic :-)

Downtown I can either speed through on 4th Ave (the slight downhill makes it easy to keep up with the signal progression, I generally head for the middle lane and take the lane, the cars don’t mind because I can keep up with the cars in front of us). Or, I can drop down to Waterfront Park for the scenic route. Then it’s back up through the Pearl to Northwest in time to get over to Friendly House for the weekly CSA pickup. Total bike miles for the return trip, about 8.

Neighborhood Based TDM

My idea is to develop internally-funded, neighborhood-based Transportation Demand Management programs. Portland State University and OHSU have shown us the way. Both institutions collect parking revenues from those who drive into their “neighborhood” and recycle these funds to reduce parking demand. They do this by:

  • Subsidizing transit
  • Investing in bicycle infrastructure
  • Subsidizing car sharing for non-SOV commuters

Any employee who gives up their parking space at PSU or OHSU gets a free transit pass and/or a safe place to park their bike, and free daytime use of Flexcar. Why play Robin Hood? Because it saves everyone money – even those who drive to work and pay to park. PSU and OHSU avoid building more structured parking, which costs anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 per space, and continually drives up everyone’s parking fees. In other words, it’s cheaper to subsidize alternatives than it is to accommodate more cars with new parking structures.

For PSU, at least, this approach has worked incredibly well. According to Dan Zalkow, PSU’s Transportation and Parking Manager, since the year 2000 PSU’s campus population has grown by 7,000 people (42%) and its classroom and office space has increased by 1 million square feet, but the campus has added fewer than 350 new parking spaces. Why? More people 42% (vs. 35% previously) are riding transit and bikes, and since daytime Flexcar use is free for non-SOV commuters, there’s no longer any need to drive to campus.

My question to the Portland Transport readership is simple: how about trying this on a neighborhood scale?