Monday, April 20, 2009

Are we hard-wired selfish - or just inefficient?

I am a huge fan of Zipcar, the company that's enabled us to live without a car for the last decade. Especially since they put a bunch of cars four blocks from our house, we use them a lot: mostly for necessary errands, but, once in a while just for the hell of it, because we simply don't feel like getting on the subway.

The magic of Zipcar is that - apart from the minor inconvenience of having to book the car for a pre-specified block of time - it's exactly like owning your own. You stroll over to the garage, unlock the car, and drive off. You don't have to pay for insurance, garaging, or even gas - just an hourly rental charge and - if you go far enough - a small mileage charge. Of course, there is a certain Cinderella-and-the-coach aspect to it. If you don't get it back by the time you've promised, the car may not turn into a pumpkin, but you are stuck with a hefty surcharge.

But though Zipcar cars are shared, it doesn't really feel like sharing. The company does its best to make Zipcar users feel like members of a community - addressing us (regrettably) as Zipsters, offering an online forum and even hosting the occasional party - but it doesn't really work. I do grin when I see another Zipcar, but I rarely actually talk to the driver. And other Zipcar drivers show no particular desire to talk to me. I did get into a Zipcar conversation four months ago, with the guy at the tree stand who carried our Christmas tree to our Zipcar pickup. Turns out they use Zipcar pickups for their deliveries too, and we agreed, in a most un-Christmaslike spirit, that Hertz (which had just started a carbon copy of Zipcar in midtown Manhattan) deserved to fall flat on its copycat face.

But that was the exception. Basically, Zipcar users are customers. Pure and simple.

So - partly prompted by a post by Rob Hopkins a while back about living without a car and partly by working on a story for MSN on sharing stuff in general - I've been thinking about what would make for real, community-oriented car-sharing. And the conclusion I've reluctantly come to is that you can have ease of use, or you can have community, but I'm not at all sure you can have both.

Take my recent experience with Jolly Wheels, a company that began its business by going Rent-A-Wreck one better (the car I rented from them a year ago or so had really scarily erratic brakes). Since then, they've adopted a new business model, in which people who own cars but don't use them regularly can rent them out to others. Jolly Wheels takes care of the bookings and (I assume) the insurance. All the car owner has to do is drop it off when the rental starts and pick it up when it's over. It sounded like at least a step towards real, genuine car-sharing.

But judging by my experience, it's not working very well. Even the $50 or so a day that Jolly Wheels renters pay owners for the use of their cars doesn't seem to be attracting ordinary car-owners; the guy whose car I was supposed to get owned a whole fleet which he rented out himself, using Jolly Wheels to fill the gaps in his schedule. And he seemed perfectly willing to leave Jolly Wheels in the lurch when a more attractive rental came along; I discovered when I called to check on my rental that my puny three days had been cast aside in favor of a more lucrative five-day deal - and that this wasn't the first time this particular owner had done that. (Of course, why, after the first experience, Jolly Wheels was still using him.....really desperate for cars, I'd guess.)

In his post, Rob writes about still another model that's more like carpooling than a car-share. People post trips they're planning (with or without a car) and the site tries to match car-owners with ride-seekers.

To make any of these concepts work - indeed, to make any sharing model work - you need volume. Because if sharing stuff involves even the smallest amount of friction, most people won't bother. (I believe in sharing, and I'm unlikely to try Jolly Wheels again. However much I like their business model in theory, in practice it was nothing but a pain.)

Yes, the truly dedicated simple-lifestyle crew will sign up quickly. But if it doesn't work right - from the get-go - even they will be driven away. If car-sharing is going to change the driving and car-owning habits of even a significant minority of drivers, let alone a majority, it's got to be so easy that it's a clear and immediate improvement on owning. And how to do in a community-oriented model, without having to spend the enormous amount of money that only a corporation can come up with, is a problem I don't think anyone has yet solved. (Except Craig Newmark, and it took him a year or so just to move from emails to a website. And let's face it - when it comes to other people and your stuff, selling's a one-night stand, but sharing is a marriage.)

The idea of sharing large, expensive, and often infrequently used items like cars, bikes, and tools is so enormously appealing - on economic, social and environmental grounds - that it seems like a no-brainer. As Jeff Boudier, a co-founder of the rent-anything site Zilok, said to me when I talked to him for the sharing article, "Instead of having 10 people rush to Wal-Mart and buy a $30 drill made in China that will break in 5 minutes, wouldn't it be better for one person to buy a very good quality tool and have a way to share it with others?" Of course it would - better for the planet and better for our credit cards, too.

Unfortunately, a no-brainer is just what it isn't. Somehow, we seem to be wired in such a way that anything short of owning - even owning something like an electric drill that we hardly ever use, don't keep in repair, and can't even find when we do want to use it - feels like a diminishment. Wherever did we get that idea - and how on earth can we be persuaded to let go of it?

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