How Car Sharing Works

The PhillyCarShare program is a nonprofit organization that was launched in 2002 to help decrease vehicle dependence in the city of Philadelphia. See more small car pictures.
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If you live, work and play all within the space of a few blocks, walking has probably become your primary mode of transportation. That is, until those rare occasions pop up when walking just won't cut it -- perhaps a necessary trip to serve jury duty or to visit the specialist across town that your general practitioner recommended.

In these situations, you may benefit from car sharing. Car sharing is short-term use of a car that's shared among a group of people. This is commonly coordinated by a company that cares for the car and manages issues like insurance and parking.


Small Car Image Gallery

Car sharing is not a new idea. The Swiss were the earliest-known pioneers of car sharing. A cooperative called Selbstfahrergemeinschaft, or Sefage for short, was started in Switzerland in 1948. It was difficult for people to afford the cost of cars at the time, so sharing cars made sense.

Car sharing has been around ever since, gaining real popularity in Europe during the 1990s. Canada jumped on the bandwagon in the mid '90s. The U.S. got involved around 2000, about the same time car-sharing companies began to pop up in Asia [source: Shaheen]. Australia also followed suit and adopted the car-sharing craze.

At this time, car sharing exists in hundreds of cities across more than a dozen countries, with more likely to come. Experts predict the trend to continue, especially with gas prices, pollution, traffic congestion and a lack of convenient, cheap parking all on the rise. Currently, an estimated 348,000 people worldwide are members of car-sharing organizations. Collectively, they drive close to 12,000 cars, although those numbers are growing every day [source: Shaheen].

Now that we know so many people are sharing cars, let's find out how they do it on the next page.



Car-Share Reservations

A quick tap of the card and you're in.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

So, how does the whole thing go down? Are there clandestine meetings in parking lots -- someone tosses you a set of keys and you jump into the car and speed away?

Not quite, but the process of car-share reservations is rather ingenious. First, a member decides to reserve a car. Depending on the company, you might be able to do this online, by phone or by text message. The reservation will usually include prompts for you to answer like:


  • What time do you want to use the car?
  • How long will you need the car?
  • Where would you like to pick up the car?
  • What type of car do you prefer?

Reservations can be made on the spot or far in advance, and the minimum time for car use is generally one hour. The earlier you book your reservation, the more likely you'll get the car you want. Last-minute reservations are not as reliable as early reservations. Maximum time for car use varies, as does the cost to become a member. Keep in mind that if you cancel a reservation at the last minute, you still may be charged.

When you arrive at the designated parking spot where the reserved vehicle is waiting, all you need to do is wave your member card near a special card reader that's generally located inside the car, near the windshield. The card reader works like the credit card machines that use blink technology instead of swiping. The cards usually won't work at any given time; they will only unlock the proper car within the reservation slot. To understand how these card readers work, read How Blink Technology Works.

When using a card reader, the keys are waiting for you somewhere inside the car, like in a glove compartment or storage console. Some companies use other methods for entry. For example, they might provide keys that work on lockboxes, which store the ignition key for each particular car.

It's important to give the car a thorough check before you drive off to make sure there's no prior damage -- after all, you don't want to be charged for someone else's fender bender. If there is damage, you should report it to the company before setting out.

Learn about the details and policies of car sharing by reading the next page.


Car-Sharing Policies

Most companies offer a variety of car-sharing policies and payment plans, customized to suit customers with different preferences and needs. For example, some companies offer pay-as-you-go plans, and some charge on a monthly billing cycle. Some companies have annual fees, while others start with a base rate and add fees for every kilometer or mile driven past the specified distance. Many companies offer a combination of these plans.

Insurance is generally included in the price, as is gas. The policy on gas differs between companies as well. Some stash a gas card in the car for drivers to use; others reimburse the expense.


Once you are finished using the car, just return it to the same spot where you picked it up. Companies usually clean and maintain their cars on a regular basis, but if you make a big mess, you'd better clean it up. This policy goes for pet-related messes too -- many companies have pet-friendly cars but expect you to clean up any fur, slobber and other unsightly messes prior to returning the car. Many companies will charge a fine if you return an unsightly, cluttered car.

Some companies also fine customers if they return cars late, so you should make sure to give yourself plenty of time when booking reservations. Members are expected to pay for any traffic/parking tickets they receive while driving the cars.

So you may be asking yourself, "Wow, if car sharing is so popular and easy, should I be doing it too?" To find out more about who can benefit from sharing a car and to learn about how to contact a car-sharing company, continue to the next page.


Should I Share a Ride?

Car sharing works for those interested in using a variety of transportation options.
Photo Courtesy Mobility CarSharing Switzerland

Car sharing is typically available only in metropolitan areas because it's just not that effective in rural settings. Also, car sharing as a potential mode of transportation works best for people who already drive sporadically and don't need a car to get to work every day. It may seem odd that someone who doesn't drive very often would want to join a car-sharing operation, but for those infrequent times he or she does need to drive, a substantial amount of money is saved sharing a car versus purchasing a rarely-driven, new car.

Finding a company is easy, especially with the help of Web sites such as A quick Internet search can tell you if car sharing is available near you. You may have already seen the designated parking spaces for shared cars around town. Once you get to a company's Web site, familiarize yourself with its policies and procedures. In some cities, more than one car-sharing company operates, so be sure to compare rates and locations in order to make the best match for your needs.


The eligibility requirements for membership vary greatly between countries and companies. Commonly, requirements include a minimum age, a valid driver's license and a fairly good driving record. Not everyone qualifies, but if your application gets denied, try another company -- it may have less rigid restrictions. It takes time for companies to process applications, so apply at least a few days before the time that you'll need a car.

If you match a company's criteria, you can apply online and usually be on the road in a few days. Then, you need to familiarize yourself with the company's fleet map and see where the cars are located for you to use. Most companies offer a variety of car makes and models, as well as vans and trucks. Hybrid vehicles are also available, and some companies allow you to make monetary contributions to offset your carbon footprint.

Next we will examine some of the benefits of car sharing and see why it might be the smart way to drive.


The Benefits of Car Sharing

Car sharing might just transform highway-turned-parking lots back to functioning streets by decreasing the number of cars on the road.
Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

One of the major benefits of car sharing is that it saves money. Owning a private vehicle, while very convenient, has many attached costs -- monthly payments, gasoline, oil changes and maintenance, parking, and insurance. Car sharing spreads those costs among several people instead of having one person shoulder the burden.

Car sharing takes more cars off the road. This might seem counterintuitive when companies place vehicles all over town, but it's true. People who frequently use car sharing tend to sell their own cars eventually and start using alternate modes of transportation, like biking and walking. They indefinitely postpone a vehicle purchase and drive less overall.


As you can probably imagine, the idea of fewer people sitting behind the wheel of a car has quite a few benefits. For one, it helps reduce traffic congestion and wear and tear on the roads. Car sharing decreases air pollution and energy dependency. Furthermore, as time passes, people hope the level of urban car sharing will tip the scales so less parking infrastructure and road expansions will be needed. This could mean more resources reserved for developing parks and urban green spaces.

Other benefits may include overall better health due to an increase in biking and walking. Even if you just walk to get to a car-share parking spot, it's better for your health than constantly driving everywhere. Car sharing also allows people who cannot afford their own vehicles access to a car.

Car sharing can be convenient for people in other ways too. For example, some people buy huge vehicles, far bigger than what they would need on a daily basis, for the occasional trip or errand. Car sharing offers versatility in vehicle choice. Get a truck the day you move, but go for the smaller, environmentally-friendly hybrid to run minor errands. Taking a day trip? Let your hair blow in the wind by driving a convertible.

For more information about car sharing and other ways you can help the environment, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • AutoShare. "Questions and Answers." (5/5/2008)
  • Frankel, Alex. "Zipcar drives toward the future." 4/15/2008. (5/5/2008)
  • Instant Advocate. "Car-Sharing." Transportation and Land Use Coalition. (5/5/2008) share/01.html
  • Mobility Car sharing. "FAQ." (5/5/2008)
  • Mobility Car sharing. "Mobility Continues to Grow." 3/14/2008. (5/5/2008) MM_Jahresabschluss-2007_E_DEF1.pdf
  • PhillyCar share. "History." (5/6/2008) http://www.phillycar
  • Shaheen, Susan and Cohen, Adam. "Growth in Worldwide Car sharing." University of California Berkeley, Institute of Transportation Studies. 3/2008. (5/5/2008)
  • The TDM Encyclopedia. "Car sharing: Vehicle Rental Services That Substitute for Private Vehicle Ownership." Victoria Transport Policy Institute. 3/7/2007. (5/6/2008)
  • Weiner, Leslie. "Zipcar Environmental and Community Impact." Zipcar. 1/2008. (5/5/2008) environmental_and_community_impact.pdf
  • Zipcar. "How does Zipcar Work? FAQs." (5/5/2008)