Car-less in Seattle: Flexcar 101


A little over two years ago my boyfriend’s car gave up the ghost without a whole lot of warning. We considered buying a car, test drove a really nice used black VW Jetta, and finally decided that it made more sense to simply go car-less. At the time, we calculated that the car we had owned free and clear was costing us about $230 a month to run, including gas (at only $2.10/gallon back then!), parking, insurance, and basic maintenance. Buying even a used car would increase our transportation expenses considerably. If we could keep our costs at roughly the same level using alternative transportation options, we could save a lot of money and be free of all the hassles of car ownership.

Deciding to give up a car was made easier by the fact that we live within easy walking distance of our downtown jobs. Because getting to work wasn’t an issue, we realized that our biggest transportation concerns revolved around shopping and getting out of town — in other words, weekend driving. We had used the car for runs to Costco, Target, and QFC, and for going on camping, hiking, and snowshoeing trips.

We had heard about Flexcar — and seen Flexcars parked around the neighborhood — so we decided to investigate that option for shorter term outings. For overnight trips, we expected to use a rental car. We were already comfortable with taking the bus to the movies or to a restaurant, and we figured a cab could fill in the gaps when all else failed. As it turned out, this combination of options has worked wonderfully well for us. Since January of this year, our monthly transportation expenses have averaged about $150 a month. Which means that we are paying less to get around now than we did when we owned a car.

If it hadn’t been for Flexcar, we probably wouldn’t have even considered going without a car. Their “car-sharing” service provided us with exactly what we needed — full access to a car whenever we want at an affordable rate. When we both joined two years ago, a lifetime membership cost $25. If you’re joining now it’s a bit more expensive — there’s a $35 registration fee and a $40 per year membership fee (if you’re a UW student and have a U-Pass, the first year’s membership fee is only $15). Once you’re a member, you pay a simple hourly fee to use a car. All other costs (unlimited mileage, insurance, gas, cleaning, maintenance, 24-hour emergency service, etc.) are covered by the hourly rate. That rate depends upon the plan that you choose, but the basic flat fee is $9 per hour ($7.20 if you’re U-Pass holder). Buying a monthly block of ten hours brings the rate down to $8.50. You can be charged a penalty for returning a car late, returning it dirty, failing to report damage, etc. — but these are all common sense/common courtesy rules that aren’t too difficult to follow. If you’re a smoker, you might not like the no smoking rule, but non-smokers will probably consider this a benefit.

Flexcars are usually Honda Civics (conventional and hybrid), but some “specialty” vehicles are also available for a slightly higher hourly rate, including Honda Elements, Ford Ranger pickups, and a Mazda Miata. There are over 100 Flexcars in the greater Seattle area, with the densest concentration on Capitol Hill, the U. District, Queen Anne, and downtown.

Once you’re a member, using a Flexcar is super easy. Reserving a car can be done on line or over the phone. If, for example, I suddenly decided that I need a car right this minute, I would log on to the website and be able to see that the car that we usually prefer to use, cuz it’s only a block and a half away, isn’t available right now, but the one a few blocks further away up by the Capitol Hill library branch is free for the rest of the day. A click of the button and the car is mine.

Using a Flexcar is also easy. Members receive passcards that are used to open the cars (the scanner is usually on the back window of the car). To start driving, you first key in your PIN number on a keypad that’s in the glove compartment in older cars and integrated into the dashboard in newer ones and then use the key in the glove compartment to start the car. If the tank goes below one quarter full while you’re driving it, you are required to have it filled up. There’s a gas card in the car and you pay with that — and get a $2 credit for having taken the time to fill the tank.

In the two years we’ve been using Flexcar we’ve had very few problems. Even if we can’t always get our first choice car, we have always been able to get something fairly close by. The cars have always been where they were supposed to be, in working order and with at least a quarter tank of gas. We once had to wait a minute when someone returned the car a tiny bit late (with profuse apologies). Once or twice we’ve had trouble returning a car because someone had parked illegally in the reserved Flexcar space, but in those cases we called the problem in and were instructed to leave the car parked nearby for Flexcar’s service people to deal with. (Besides being bad karma, parking in a Flexcar parking space is risky — they will definitely tow your ass if they catch you.)

Flexcar is a Seattle-based company and began operations here in 2000. They currently also operate in Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, DC, have 24,000 personal use members and are used by over 400 businesses. Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, recently bought a controlling interest in the company — joined by Lee Iacocca, who owns a smaller share. Case apparently has big plans for the company and Flexcar has announced a 50% increase in the size of its Los Angeles, San Diego, and DC fleets by December. Meanwhile, Zipcar, Flexcar’s East Coast competitor, has announced plans to open operations in several West Coast cities, including Seattle. (See Treehugger for a discussion of these developments.)

One of the hardest things about adjusting to life without a car is getting over the feeling that renting a Flexcar or taking a cab is a luxury. The cost of car ownership tends to be somewhat invisible because it’s built into the infra-structure of your budget. You don’t stick cash into a slot in your car each time you use it, so it somehow feels “free” compared to handing a cab driver $10. (Well, maybe not so much these days, what with gas prices being as high as they are.) We didn’t want to stop doing things we enjoy because we don’t have a car, so we’ve had to put some conscious effort into the idea of grabbing a Flexcar or calling a cab for spur of the moment things.

[Thanks to Peter for being intrigued by Flexcar at our last meetup and suggesting that I write about it.]

7 Comments so far

  1. Kelly (unregistered) on October 2nd, 2005 @ 7:09 pm

    Yeah, I’ve had my Flexcar going on two years as well, and I really like it. So far there’s always been one basically across the street, to use as my primary car, with several nearby as backup. I’ve not been so lucky with the members returning things on time; in fact, just today someone returned one 25 minutes late, and it took them nearly 45 minutes to call me back to work things out with me.

    BUT – when someone does screw up and take the keys, or returns the car late, you benefit. Today, I got comped three hours, which was exactly how long I needed the car. Of course, if you’re the late person, you get to pay for at least a portion of that, but it’s incentive to not be late.

    I think the hardest thing is the luxury thing. I really have to stop and think about whether or not the trip is “worth it”, or can be done via bus, if I’m just being lazy, etc. The other downside is that I do tend to hold off on my larger errands until I end up having to spend a lot of money, so it does physically feel like it hurts more up front (not to mention when you get the bill 3 weeks later).

    Still, it’s infinitely cheaper than a car, insurance, and parking on the Hill would be. :)

  2. Cat Nilan (unregistered) on October 3rd, 2005 @ 6:45 am

    I was just trying to figure out what the late return penalty is. Looks like you get charged at least $20 extra (plus the extra hourly charges for whatever time you use), with up to an additional $100 for “incurred costs” — which I guess might include comping another person’s hours, paying their cabfare, etc. If you call in in advance to let them know that you’ve been delayed they don’t charge you the penalty — but you’re still liable for the incurred costs. So that’s gotta hurt at least a little.

    The hardest thing for us is using a Flexcar or a cab for social events. If it’s shopping it feels like a justified expense, but if it’s just dropping in on a party for an hour or two it seems somehow frivolous. But we’re trying hard to not let being car-less cramp our style, which includes getting out and having fun.

  3. Christina (unregistered) on October 3rd, 2005 @ 10:18 am

    Flexcar charges by the hour (mileage is included) but some of the other car sharing companies (in other cities) charge by the hour ($2 or so) and THEN by the mile (19 cents or so). Technically this is more environmentally friendly, which I appreciate, but I have to admit my Type-A personality would be so riled up counting my miles all the time.

    It will be interesting to see what ZipCar does. A lower by the hour + mileage plan would make me more able to justify the car for social events. I struggle with that too, Cat; hard to justify getting the Flexcar to go to a show in Ballard even though I really want to drive, not take two buses. If I weren’t paying so much while the car sat there, I’d be more inclined, I think.

  4. josh (unregistered) on October 3rd, 2005 @ 1:29 pm

    Regarding Christina’s point: I think that Flexcar used to have a similar hours + miles program in the olden days. They also used to not charge for any use between midnight and 7 am, which made using the cars for shows or social events a lot more economical.

    It’s kind of too bad that there isn’t a way to make use of the time that the car’s just sitting there, but I guess coordinating multiple users and multiple drop off points would be a nightmare.

  5. Bruce (unregistered) on October 3rd, 2005 @ 3:43 pm

    It still has a prepaid hours program; but they’ve dropped the miles section. You can buy one of several packages. I’ve found that their various discounted packages make it worthwhile. I’m a UDub employee and for the small price of $7.20 an hour, you can take advantage of pretty cheap rentals. You can also keep the car from midnight to 7 am for no charge, especially if you have kept one of their Freedom 7 cars all day. I’d check with on that last statement, just to be sure. However, a pretty good idea.

    Looking forward to seeing how zipcar will do things here, though.

  6. Kelly (unregistered) on October 4th, 2005 @ 12:15 am

    You can also keep the car from midnight to 7 am for no charge,
    Alas, they got rid of this last winter. :( It used to be the bestest thing, too… I’d do all my shopping late at night, with a free car. :)

  7. Michael GR (unregistered) on October 4th, 2005 @ 7:31 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. It is very interesting to have a first hand account of car-sharing.

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