ZipCar Brings Car-Sharing Fight to the U.S. Traffic Capital

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 14: A Zipcar is displayed during a promotion of the short term car rental company on April 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York City. Zipcar debuted on the Nasdaq Stock Market Thursday under the symbol ZIP and saw its stock surge 67% on its first day of trading. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If there were a World Series of Traffic, Los Angeles could be the host city for the event. It’s where drivers go to stop dead on the road, catch up on their texts, and check out John Oliver videos on YouTube.

While this system certainly serves a purpose in modern life, Angelenos yearn for a day when they can, say, drive the speed limit during daylight hours on local roads, potentially arriving close to the time estimate their navigation system predicted. Maybe ZipCar’s one-way car-sharing service is a place to start.

Boston-based ZipCar, which is owned by Avis and lays claims to the most comprehensive car-share network in the world, is tackling the round-trip bugaboo that stands between it and so many drivers with an option to go one-way in a vehicle, a system it beta-tested in its home city. Customers who use the service can now plan a trip from a single point to their destination with guaranteed parking, no return trip required.

Continuing with the theme of added flexibility, ZipCar is giving drivers the option to change their destination point mid-trip and extend their reservation while on the road. The service will be available in select markets around the country, beginning with its L.A. debut around mid-March. Customers will have Honda vehicles to choose from, with the compact Fit the only model mentioned in the company statement announcing the program.

This move is a welcome escalation of the car-sharing battle that is heating up in the auto industry. Daimler’s Car2Go service already operates on the same principle — one-way trips, parking guaranteed — with Smart cars the small vehicle of choice. But that system has not made it to L.A. yet.

Source: Honda

The movement has not been lost on leading U.S. automakers. FordPass and GM’s Maven brand both offer answers to mobility issues encountered by (ironically enough) U.S. consumers who have been hot for their large vehicles in recent years. Owning a car isn’t terribly fun in congested cities, and these plans could get urban dwellers better transportation options without several of the negatives.

Considering the lack of mass-transit options available to Angelenos, it’s hard to blame them for hopping in the car to go just about anywhere, anytime. Mobility enhancers like car-sharing and ride-sharing have a clear shot at changing the equation. On the latter front, Uber and Lyft have seen a quick ascent in L.A., but it’s hard to believe they have lightened congestion on local streets (more likely, the opposite). Let’s say they succeed best as anonymous designated drivers for Angelenos on the town — a useful service by any account.

Daylight-hours traffic remains the dragon to slay for city officials worried about mobility, and car-sharing services like ZipCar’s may have exacerbated the problem by insisting on round-trip travel, forcing drivers to wade through traffic to make it back to an arbitrary starting point. How L.A. residents respond should offer clues to how widely ZipCar will offer the service.

So will the day come when someone can live in L.A. and not own a car? We’re definitely not there yet, but we’re getting warmer.

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY