Robin Chase on the Birth of Zipcar and the Future of Transportation (Part One)

Robin Chase TreeHugger image

To Robin Chase, parked cars and solo drivers just look like a great big mess of wasted capacity. It’s this kind of thinking that inspired her to start Zipcar (now the world’s largest carsharing company), and GoLoco, the Facebook of ridesharing. It’s also the kind of thinking that got her invited to speak at TED and put her on TIME’s 100 list for 2009.
Chase took some time from her frenetic life to tell us about the birth of Zipcar, the progress of GoLoco, and where she’s headed next (hint: cars that talk to each other).

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Robin Chase (Part One) by TreeHugger Podcast

Music comes from Nightmares on Wax.

Listen to part two of our interview here.

Full text after the jump.
TreeHugger: Since starting Zipcar you've moved on to other things, but for the uninitiated, how do you describe Zipcar?

Robin Chase: This is the elevator pitch that I have probably given close to 1, 000 times, so here we go: Zipcar parks cars throughout dense metropolitan areas and university towns for people to use by the hour and by the day instead of driving their own cars. You make a reservation online or by telephone for a very specific car in a specific location and that reservation gets sent wirelessly to the car. You walk up to a car and you hold your membership card on a spot in the windshield and that unlocks the door, enables the ignition, and opens the billing record.

People drive round trip and park back in that same reserved parking space when they are done. The billing record is closed and you are all done.

TreeHugger: Is there any way to actually calculate the ecological and societal benefits that car sharing offers?

Chase: There have been a number of studies before we started. One of the interesting things about Zipcar is that this was an idea that was in practice in Europe that we brought and changed and executed brilliantly. There are a number of car sharing companies around the world, some release their data and some don't. The general gist across all the data sets is that car sharing will make 20 to 40 people car satisfied in one vehicle. And about 40 percent of those drivers have avoided buying a car, or sold a car because they had access to the service.

Then people say, "Well, what about the people who didn't use Zipcars and who now drive cars. Aren't you adding vehicle miles traveled?"

So when I look at the benefits of car sharing, we can say that Zipcar today has about 275,000 members using 6,000 cars parked in 6,000 parking spaces. If that population at large had been doing that it would be about 120,000 cars instead of the 6,000.

So there is a big win with respect to the number of cars needed to satisfy a population and the associated parking spaces.

More profound and of larger environmental impact is the fact that with car sharing you pay by the hour the full cost of renting that car. So you are paying your share of depreciation, gas, insurance, parking, maintenance. It is all in that hourly fee and in that daily rate.

What is interesting though is that as in individual, when you own your own car, you say to yourself, "I want some ice cream," and you get up and drive and get some ice cream and come back.

But when you do car sharing you say, "I want some ice cream. That is going to cost 10 dollars an hour. I am not going to have ice cream, I am going to have cookies, or I am going to buy ice cream on my way home tomorrow, or I am going to get up and walk because it is not worth 10 dollars to me."

So the more profound environmental impact is that car sharing, by virtue of its pricing mechanism, makes people use a car when it is the correct mode of transportation.

We now have to decide, because we have the cost in front of us, do I really need to do this errand? Do I need to do it now, and is the car the best way to do it? And when we own a car we don't do that at all.

Back to this thing at large, the average American is putting about 15,000 miles a year on their car, and the car sharing vehicles are getting something along that same amount, yet 20 to 40 people are driving it. We know that it is a dramatic reduction in vehicle miles traveled per person because of this pricing policy.

TreeHugger: Who is running Zipcar and has it changed?

Chase: The person who runs it now is Scott Griffith, and while he is the CEO he has a board that helps shape the strategy and the policy. I am very happy with Zipcar's growth. When I was leading it we doubled and tripled every year, and I think they continue to double. And I would say in terms of size and scale and demand it is exactly what I imagined, anticipated, built, and scaled for.

The differences would lie in corporate culture and their marketing strategy. Their ad campaign is very car-centric, and I think it positions itself in parallel with car rental and car sales companies. Whereas I was positioning Zipcar very much more deeply as a lifestyle choice, and about people, not about cars.

I would say that is a different marketing strategy.

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