Car Sharing: Why Own When You Can Just Share?

Photo: 3n

Imagine a life where you don’t have to worry about unexpected car repair bills railroading your monthly budget; monthly car loan or lease payments are non-existent, insurance and long-term parking costs are distant memories; and even the gas is paid for…welcome to a life of car sharing.

In urban centers around the world, car sharing is taking off. People who don’t usually require a car on a daily basis can benefit from car sharing, saving both money and environmental resources. (See also: 10 Cost-Conscious Commuting Options)


Despite its more recent surge in popularity in North America, the car sharing concept was introduced and perfected in the 1980s in Europe, where they encountered space and fuel constraints well before North America felt the pinch.

Canada was next to adopt car sharing, starting with Montreal in the early 1990’s. And according to a Berkeley study, as of January of 2009 the United States had over 300,000 car share members sharing almost 7,000 vehicles, and Canada had almost 47,000 members sharing almost 1,800 vehicles.

How It Works

  • Most car share program memberships require a small sign up or enrollment fee, and depending on the plan you choose, you may also pay a small monthly amount. You will be invoiced per trip, or on a monthly invoice (with a deposit paid up front), depending on your intended amount of use.
  • Upon enrollment, you will likely be sent a membership card with an electronic chip in it.
  • You reserve a car by phone, internet, or SMS (which is increasingly becoming available), 24 hours a day. You can reserve up to a year in advance, or with as little as five minutes advance notice of when you need your wheels.
  • With your confirmation, you are given a location to pick up your car. The car share program will triangulate the closest car (that fits your needs) to your current location.
  • You use your membership card to unlock the car, and the key is usually secured somewhere inside. The key, in conjunction with the membership card, will start the car.
  • At the end of your scheduled period of use, you return the car to the same parking spot.
  • If the gas gauge falls below the quarter line, you top it up using the fuel card provided with the car.
  • You pay for your car based on hours of use, and mileage driven.
  • If you need a car for a longer period of time such that it is more cost-effective to conventionally rent one, most car sharing companies will refer you to an associate rental company that offers deep discounts as a function of your membership.

Who Car Sharing is Best For / Membership Requirements

  • You don’t need the car for work every day, and drive less than 8,000 miles (12,000kms) per year, then car sharing works out to be more economical than owning a car. (Although some car share programs imply that even a daily commuting need can be accommodated).
  • You live in the city, and have the ability to use public transportation/walk/bicycle for the remainder of your time.
  • You must be at least 21 to 25 years old, depending on the car share company and its terms.
  • A clean driving record is usually required for a certain period of time prior to joining.

Advantages of Car Sharing

  • You pay for a car only when you use it.
  • If you have a light move to do, don’t worry about renting a moving truck; just opt for one of the car sharing company’s trucks or vans to help you haul that precious cargo.
  • You are not limited by office hours – reserve and use your car at any time of day or night.
  • The entire reservation, pick-up, and return process is all self-service.
  • Need a car for an hour? Or a full day? Most needs can be accommodated.
  • Insurance, fuel, and maintenance costs are covered by the program.
  • You can change cars with your mood. With a variety of cars to choose from, you can go upscale and sporty for your fancy downtown meeting, get a cargo van to move that unwieldy table, then choose something comfortable to cruise in for your jaunt to the next town.
  • Every car is shared between 15-20 people, which take a proportionate number of cars off the road. Multiply this number by the thousands of cars made available by car share programs, and the net reduction of cars on the road is significant.

Disadvantages of Car Sharing

  • Cars aren’t usually cleaned between uses.
  • You have to pick up and drop off the car at a designated spot in your city. Depending on the availability of cars and where you live, you may have to trek some distance to get to the car.
  • The penalty for returning the car late can be steep, since another car share user could be waiting on your wheels. When reserving your car, it is best to err on the side of caution, taking into account potential setbacks and traffic delays. If an emergency arises and you will be late, call the car share company to see if you can extend your window of time.

Rules of Engagement

  • Pets must be kept in carriers at all times.
  • Since the car rarely gets cleaned or serviced between customer uses, please leave the car neat and tidy.
  • Expect to have a background check performed on your driving record upon enrollment.
  • More often than not the car must be returned to the same parking spot. If you anticipate the need to make one-way trips, check your local car share program regulations.

News in the Car Share Industry

With the increasing popularity of car sharing, here are some cool developments that are worth keeping an eye on:

  • Zipcar just got into bed with Apple, who developed an iPhone application that allows users to reserve and unlock the cars with their iPhone.
  • Baltimore is leading the way with America’s first all electric car sharing program.
  • Programs for university campuses are increasingly common. This is a fabulous resource, as it reduces the demand for on-campus parking, and university students as well as faculty and staff can benefit.
  • Membership programs and perks for Businesses include fleet management and employee incentive programs.

To find a car sharing program close to you, check out




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Guest's picture

This is the company that operates in Ottawa. Unfortunately, you have to be 23 years old to join. One more year to go!

I was really interested because it would be great for doing groceries a couple of times per week, and also when I want to go see my parents who aren't far at all, but public transportation doesn't get there.

I understand why they put an age restriction; but still, its a bit annoying.

Guest's picture

I agree it is a bit of an inconvenience.

Guest's picture

This was very informative thank you.

Guest's picture

I've always wondered how this works, thank you. It's clearly not for me, seeing as how I average 20,000+ miles/year, but I'm glad it's available for others to take advantage of.

And just because it's bugging me, it's err on the side of caution, not air.

Guest's picture

"it is best to air on the side of caution"
should be
it is best to err on the side of caution

Guest's picture

..they find it is cheaper than renting cars. They like the hourly concept. However, it leads to hurry up, we gotta finish dinner, our car's meter's running...usually a rent of a car is for the 24 hour period.

They say the cars shared has always been clean, but your mileage may vary, so to speak.

Nora Dunn's picture

Thanks for the comments all - I certainly plan to use car share programs when I'm living in urban centres.

And thanks for the attention to detail: "air" has been fixed. Cheers!

Guest's picture
Joe Lawrence

I think it makes sense if you live in NYC. But I'd still prefer zipcar or just paying for monthly parking permits. But then again, I need such freedom as a business owner! Cool tips though! Reminds me of Jet Sharing, where you can get the benefit of flying private, but paying a lot less.