Share-brained idea: Adventures in car sharing, part 1
I’ll say this about “sharing” my car: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
My wife, Tara, and I own two cars. One is a little fuel-efficient city car, a Honda Fit, that’s good for 95 percent of what we need a car for: shuttling the kids to and from school, running out for groceries, weekend trips to the islands or woods. Bikes and buses have their place, but we use the Honda just about every day.
Our second car, a Subaru Forester, takes care of the other 5 percent of our automotive needs: bombing through snow and ice during ski season and rattling up dirt roads on summertime camping trips. But six (sometimes seven) days a week, it just sits in front of our house. I bike to work — I can’t imagine sitting in traffic every day (as I’ve said before, I’m just not a well-adjusted 21st century human). On days that are too nasty to ride (and we get those in Seattle), I can walk a half a block from my house and hop on a bus that drops me at the office doorstep.
We’ve talked about selling one car, but which one? The Honda burns a fraction of the gas the Subaru does, and that’s good for the planet and the pocketbook, but the Subaru is the one car that actually does everything we need a car to do. (Yes, I use “need” loosely here. But sorry, Earth, we’re not willing to give up our mountain time — and mass-transit-served hiking in my area has a long way to go.)
Why not rent the Subaru for a few hours or a few days here and there, we thought, and make back a few of the dollars we spend to keep the thing registered and insured and sitting, unused, in the driveway? Several services have popped up in the past few years that facilitate this kind of “peer-to-peer” rental, and we’d dabbled with car sharing before. We decided to give it a shot.
I did some quick digging and found that we spend about $860 a year to keep the Subaru registered and insured. If we could just make that much from short-term rentals, at least the thing wouldn’t be a money suck. If we made enough, we thought, we could finally afford that awesome cargo bike, with room for both kids on the rack, sparing us, and the climate, a lot of car trips around town.
But first I wanted to be sure that we’d be covered if someone drove our car into Puget Sound — or worse, a pedestrian. I did a little research on car-sharing companies and settled on RelayRides, the only major outfit that seemed to be operating in Seattle. (The other biggie is GetAround.) The company had this handy video explaining how the service works:
Sounds good, right? RelayRides does background checks on all renters and provides $1 million in insurance should someone wreck your car. Bonus: By renting your vehicle, you keep “an average of 14 other cars off the road.” (I’m not sure where they got that number, but a 2010 study conducted by Susan Shaheen at UC Berkeley that looked at “classic,” Zipcar-style car sharing, not peer-to-peer, concluded that 9-13 cars were taken off the road for every car-sharing vehicle.) We were sold.
Before renting the Subaru, we invested in a thorough tuneup ($522 for fresh oil, new spark plugs, the works), and a deep clean ($253 for four hours of digging Cheerios and month-old spilled yogurt out of the cracks between the seats). And in February, I registered with RelayRides. I dubbed the car the “Weekend Warrior” and wrote up a tear-jerker of a profile (“This poor car only gets to the mountains once a week at best …”). I set our rental prices based on the company’s recommendation for what I could get for it in Seattle: $6 an hour, $33 a day, or $164 a week. And then we waited for the money to start rolling in.
A month passed. We got a weird request from some dude named Shane who said he’d be willing to pay $200 for a “one way rental to Homer” — as in Alaska. A quick 2,484 miles. No word on how we were supposed to get the car back.
Finally, in March, we got a legitimate bite. We made our first rental to a guy named John. Judging from his RelayRides profile, email and phone conversation, and a face-to-face chat on pick-up day, he was an upstanding citizen and a really nice guy. He owned a car, but needed a second one because his college-age kids were going to be in town for winter break, and they all planned to go skiing at Mount Baker.
Still, sending a perfect stranger off with the family auto — for two weeks, no less — was a little unnerving. “I’m having empty nest syndrome with the car,” Tara said about three hours after John had left. “One minute I’m thinking, ‘Sweet, we rented it!’ The next second I’m like, ‘I hope it’s OK.’”
I knew how she felt. As I handed John the keys and watched him drive away, it struck me that the Subaru wasn’t just our ticket to the mountains. It was also our bank account. If I lost my job or we met some financial catastrophe, the extra car was the one thing we could sell for fast cash. If someone wrecked it, the insurance would cover it, but that wasn’t what worried me. Every mile that car traveled whittled away at its already meager resale value. And if something big gave out or wore out by no fault of the renter, we’d be stuck with the bill — and, judging from the balance in the actual bank account, probably out of business.
I tried to put those thoughts out of my mind, but that was easier said than done. I’ve been bred to make things last decades after they’ve lost their cool. My father is known as “a retailer’s nightmare” — if it wasn’t for generous/concerned friends, he’d still be skiing on the Olin Mark IIIs he bought in grad school (not really my dad, but you get the picture). And he drives his cars until they sputter and die, the odometers well beyond 200,000 miles. On that front, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
But I so wished I could change. I so wanted to trust in the goodwill of our bright new shining sharing economy, and the progressive, unfailingly courteous customers who inhabit it and make the whole experience go down smooth.
As it turned out, however, my instincts were right.