Zipcar: surviving on campus without personal transportation

Magazine Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2010

In high school, sophomore year meant sweet 16’s and, for most of my friends, a new car — but not me.

My carbon-emission minded parents, for what at the time seemed to be completely illogical reasons, were of the strong conviction that a car was not necessary for navigating our two-mile-radius town. My house was one half block from school, two blocks from the modest area known as “downtown” and less than a mile from my friends.

Despite the walkability of my town, my peers drove their Jeeps, Hondas and BMWs to school and then to the Panera 20 minutes away for off campus lunch.

Because of my lack of transportation — and resolution to participate in all popular high school culture and activities — I soon perfected the art of catching a ride.

Given my high school experience, adapting to life in Ann Arbor without a car wasn’t exceedingly difficult. Everything a student really needs is available at Village Apothecary or White Market, and if a new pair of boots is absolutely necessary, online shopping is one click away or the Briarwood Mall is just a quick trip on the number six bus.

So when I registered for RCHUMS 334: Community Empowerment Through the Arts — a course that requires students enrolled to travel to Detroit once a week to experience community-based art — I thought the professors would have already lined up some form of transportation for the trips.

But my assumptions were wrong, and as I scrambled to find a way to travel between Ann Arbor and Detroit each week, I recalled a friend at school in Maine who had raved about something called Zipcar.

When her small college became claustrophobic, she could reserve a set of wheels and drive to nearby Boston for a change of scenery. It seemed so simple.

And so I registered with Zipcar — a national company that allows individuals or organizations to buy memberships and rent cars for hourly blocks of time — assuming all of my problems would be solved with a hybrid and a tank of gas.

As a student, I was able to register through the University, lowering my annual membership fee from $50 to $35 and eliminating the initial registration fee. Drivers must typically be 21 years old to use the service, but when signed up through the University, that number is lowered to 18.

I completed a brief online application and received approval via e-mail a day later.

My first attempt to book a car — the night before I needed it, of course — was a failure, as the closest available car was parked more than a mile away.

LSA sophomore Belle Cheves, a fellow Zipcar user, said she’s also run into similar problems using the service.
“Whenever I tried to reserve it, there would usually only be one or two left,” she said. “There were always people using it before or after us.”

Given the choice between walking to Kerrytown from East Quad at 8 a.m. and paying $42.93 for a Zipcar, or finding another form or transportation to Detroit, I chose the latter. But I began to feel as if my investment was more stylish than practical.

Though I was hesitant to take advantage of my purchase, I felt empowered knowing if I really had to get off campus, I could. I began to offer to pick people up from the airport, take my neighbor to Walgreens and drive a group of friends to yoga.

For $8 an hour — $9 on weekends — I had the power of 180 miles of mobility. After a week or two of contemplating the possibilities of my expensive purchase, I finally booked a car.

Friday afternoon, I trekked through fresh snow to a Zipcar parking lot tucked behind South Quad, and after six failed attempts to swipe my membership card over the sensor on the windshield, the Scion xB automatically unlocked.

I climbed in, adjusted the seat and found the key dangling below the steering wheel. And then, I was off to yoga class.
Normally, getting to the studio involves waiting for a bus and crossing the un-crossable street that is Washtenaw Avenue, but with my trusty Zipcar, my friends and I parked just five steps from the door. After class, I wanted to complete my afternoon with a trip to Whole Foods, but my reservation was almost up.

I faced a tough dilemma: organic mangos and a possible late fee, or leave the strip mall empty-handed but return the car on time. Ultimately, I decided to risk the fee, and though I pulled into the specified lot seven minutes late, no late fees were charged.

Though my first experience was ultimately a success, I haven’t booked a Zipcar since. Its inconvenience and price don’t seem worth it when, in reality, there’s not much a student can’t access within a few blocks of his or her home.
When everything is so accessible on foot, it’s difficult to find the time to take advantage of a set of wheels that have an hourly rate that is higher than most students’ hourly wage.

It is certainly liberating, however, to know that if I ever have the sudden impulse to get out of the Ann Arbor city limits for an afternoon, I’m just a click away from the open road.