Hourly car rental exploding on college campuses

Having worked at five different colleges and universities over the past 16 years, I’ve heard a lot of excuses from students who were late to class. The most frequent of those excuses, hands down: “I couldn’t find a place to park.” I’d hazard to guess that personal transportation (i.e. a car driven by a single person) is one of the biggest contributors to college and university greenhouse gas emissions.

Campuses around the US are trying a number of methods to reduce the parking crunch (and the costs of providing more parking) through a variety of methods: campus shuttles and discounted public transportation passes are pretty common. Hourly car rental, or car sharing, is a relatively new entry into the game, but it’s catching on like wildfire. The concept is simple: a number of cars are available on campus for students and staff to rent for short time periods. The thinking goes that if these cars are available, many students will avoid the costs and hassle of car ownership… and likely use greener methods of transportation on a day-to-day basis.

It seems to be working: hundreds of schools across the country have instituted car sharing programs, and existing and new companies are fighting to get into this market. Among the companies offering hourly car rental on campus:

  • Zipcar: The grandaddy of car sharing companies, Zipcar now offers service on over 100 college campuses, including Pomona College (CA), The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Smith College (MA). The company claims that each one of its shared vehicles takes 15-20 personally-owned vehicles off the road, and car sharers tend to drive less than 5500 miles a year.
  • U Car Share: A division of U-Haul, U Car Share offers service at Linnfield College (OR), Virginia Tech, and UC-Berkeley.
  • WeCar: When I first talked to St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-a-Car about its WeCar car sharing service in 2008, they saw it as an experiment (and had opened only two locations here in the Lou’). Apparently, that experiment worked: in addition to Washington University, students and staff can rent WeCars at St. Mary’s College (CA), Tulane, West Virginia University, and the University of Oregon.
  • Connect by Hertz: Clearly, traditional car rental companies see opportunity here. Hertz now offers its Connect service at Ohio State, the University of North Texas, and, most recently, the University of Central Oklahoma (which is the first campus-based car sharing program in the state).

Of course, car sharing is also taking off in urban areas, but, from my cursory overview, it looks likes colleges and universities represent the real growth opportunity here. That’s good for school budgets… it’s also good for educating students on the financial and environmental costs of using a car as a primary means of getting around.

Use a car-sharing service on campus? Like to get one going? Share your thoughts and experiences… we’d love to hear them.