By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

No one sends a kid to college without escaping a raft of sacred duties. There’s the requisite group reading of course offerings, the ceremonial first check writing, the buying of the coordinated bedding and the securing of a vehicle in which the newly minted young adult is launched full throttle into his or her post-secondary education experience.

WeCar vehicles often appeal to a younger market.

But this last carbon intensive practice has never been economical, especially for young men whose insurance rates can jackhammer through mom and dad’s bank account faster than tuition fees.

More and more, people are questioning whether wheels are even necessary on campus. Many colleges can’t accommodate all those parking needs, and even on gigantic state school campuses students don’t need to drive from class to class. Often a young adult mainly needs a car to return home on weekends or holidays, a transportation need easily solved by Greyhound or Amtrak. For those occasional excursions when a car is called for, the new answer is car sharing.

Car sharing can forestall the big expense of buying and maintaining a car that might only see the road a couple times a month when a kid is hard at work in college (we hope), and it can relieve a college student (or young urbanite for that matter) of sweating the parking fees, insurance and vehicle payments.

“Triple A estimates that the average cost is $600 a month to own a car,’’ says Ryan Johnson, assistant vice president of WeCar Operations at Enterprise Holdings. “Our average car member spends less than $50 a month.”

If you already own a car, obviously that price differential is not so great. But it’s still likely far more to own than to share.

WeCar, and competitor ZipCar, are vying to capitalize on this truth. Both companies want to be the car share solution for college students across the U.S.  and they’ve seeded dozens of campuses and university towns  with outlets. WeCar counts about 20 universities in its inventory. Market leader ZipCar has partnerships with more than 200 colleges and universities, according to a spokeswoman.

The companies are targeting the current crop of students, who polls show are greener than previous generations and may just forego or forestall car ownership anyway. These young people, who already rely on bikes, trains and subways in major metro areas, appear to be the perfect target market for car share memberships. The car companies see a possible new paradigm emerging in which young people, saddled with rent and education payments, rely on a customized, and streamlined, transportation network that’s greener and more affordable.

So far, corporate and city clients make up the bulk of WeCar’s business, accounting for about two-thirds of its fleet. But the subsidiary of St. Louis-based Enterprise Holdings (Enterprise Rent a Car, National Rental and Alamo Car Rental), is ramping up at universities. It maintains more than two dozen WeCar rental sites at colleges from New Jersey to California. Each campus houses two to four vehicles, sited where they can be easily checked out and returned, in fun, “youthful” and hybrid models that aim to please students and green conscious faculty.

At Lehigh University where WeCar has just set up shop this fall, for instance, the service offers a Nissan Cube and a Toyota Prius Hybrid. The cars are located at the Centennial II lot on the Bethlehem, Penn., campus and can be rented out for $10 (the Cube) or $12 (the Prius) per hour, or for $55 or $60 a day. Students must also be members, which typically costs $50 a year. Other details are outlined on WeCar’s Lehigh website.

Schools share the set-up costs with WeCar, paying to offer the service on campus, but WeCar passes on price breaks to students under some of the contracts with schools, Johnson said.

At Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., the university wanted to encourage car sharing as part of its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so it foots some of the costs. Students there can rent a Prius or Camry for just $8 an hour or $59 for the day. Like students at other WeCar campuses, students can drive the cars for 200 miles before incurring extra fees. At Carleton, set in a rural area, that’s enough free miles to get to a Twins game in Minneapolis and back again.

The program “opens up a lot of benefits to them, which are typically the things that cause a parent to buy a vehicle for them,” Johnson says.

Johnson believes WeCar has the winning formula, with its ability to change up fleets quickly by adding or re-absorbing cars into the rental fleets in the Enterprise group, which is the largest in the nation.

A person desperate for a car who’s discovered that their local WeCars are checked out, could potentially receive an Enterprise rental car to cover the gap time, Johnson said. “Our ability to add and remove vehicles is very high,’’ he explained,

There is one big difference between a car share car and a short term rental, he said. “Car sharing is built on a community. There’s a higher level of respect shown to that vehicle than a typical rental that you use and then don’t use it again.”

That’s the other new paradigm about car sharing. When you’re done with it, you take out the trash.

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