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Road Noise: Share and Share Alike. Or Don’t.

  • October 10, 2008
  • Road Noise
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I have my own car, because I come from Michigan, where people older than 16 who don’t own cars are subject to the intense scrutiny and (ahem) gentle persuasion of their local UAW chapters. But when I went to college out of state, I was able to slip free of the car culture and live a glorious pedestrian lifestyle.
I hated it.

The guy on the Pedestrian Crossing sign is ashamed of not having a car. You can see it in his eyes.

I was living in the depths of Missouri, in a town where “urban” and “planning” weren’t words that generally walked hand in hand. Indeed, there was no walking going on there at all. If I wanted groceries, I could A) take a two-hour bus ride, B) date a guy with a car, or C) get a car of my own.
I tried option B first, but if you think a 1982 Crown Vic requires a lot of maintenance, it’s got nothin’ on the guy who drove me around in it. So I drove my faithful sticker-bedecked Tercel down to campus after Christmas break and proceeded to blow my life’s savings on parking and gas.
I told you this largely pointless story in order to illustrate how easy Kids These Days have it. A lot of campuses have Zipcar service, and never again must students who just want to drive to the Wal-Mart and the Liquor Plaza once a week sit next to a hobo while attempting option A.

Google Images produced this picture when I searched for “hobo on the bus.” Your guess is as good as mine.

Zipcar is a service that allows members to pick up cars from drop-off lots, use them for a couple of hours or a few days, and then leave them back in the lot. Customers reserve their preferred vehicle – the Zipcar site touts the availability of Minis, BMWs, hybrids and pickups – and then use a magical RFID card to unlock the car and go on their merry way. No rental desks, no ungodly gas surcharge, nothin’.
A Portland, Ore., Zipcar is unlocked through the miracle of science.

On one hand, this is a fantastic idea. Students who do most of their travel on foot sometimes need to get a distant store, theater or guy with really excellent weed. People living in walkable communities still sometimes need to make a Costco run or escape past the end of the Metro line. Heck, I have a car, and sometimes I just need a pickup for the afternoon so I can bring something home from the damned Ikea.

So I just leave it here? And no one charges me for insurance at the end of the month or sends the bank after me because I lost the payment book? Score.

On the other hand, this is a terrible idea. There’s a little thing – the only thing – I remember from Econ 102: Tragedy of the commons. It’s a problem that arises when a bunch of people who share a resource destroy that resource by acting in their own self interest, even though doing so ultimately benefits no one. While I’m sure Zipcar can use its computer voodoo to figure out which subscriber put the eight-inch scrape down the side of a Beamer, imagine the accumulated lint, grit and dropped french fries on the floorboards of a car used by 25 different people over the course of a week. Those 25 people care enough about the car to get their money’s worth out of it, sure, but they don’t care enough to dive under the front seat for a tater tot that fell out of the Sonic bag.
It’s inevitable

Editor’s Note: Like Katrina, I can’t imagine that eventually car-share users will stop thinking “shared resource” and start thinking “rental–someone else’s cleanup job,” but the ZipCar user and ZipCar rep I interviewed in Portland say their cars are pretty well self-policed. But Portland’s a happy, earth-friendly, love-your-neighbors kind of place, so maybe it isn’t surprising for that environment. Or maybe the system weeds out those who never learned to play nicely by virtue of those types not wanting to sign up.
Seems like it would only take a bad apple here or there to tarnish the experience, and it also seems more likely to find that bad apple in a busy, young, always overburdened college kid than fully adult urbanite. For ZipCar users, there is a blog and e-mail system for reporting bad behavior by prior drivers. For now, anyway, ZipCar says that’s been enough to keep people honest. — Stephanie

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