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When sharing a car makes common cents

Higher costs are parking motorists, but sharing a car might be the answer

When Antony Upward's 1990 Honda Civic died a few years ago, the Toronto IT architect decided he'd had it with soaring insurance premiums and hefty repair bills.

So, after gathering up his courage, he kissed his Honda -- and car ownership -- goodbye. Now, when he needs to run errands on weekends, he books a car on-line with a service called AutoShare, which operates a fleet of 45 vehicles stationed throughout the city.

Car-sharing, a European idea, is catching on with North Americans who see it as a more economical and environmentally-friendly alternative to vehicle ownership. AutoShare and a growing number of similar services appeal to urbanites who don't need a car full-time but still want a vehicle occasionally to cart around groceries or take the kids to soccer practice.

For Mr. Upward, getting rid of his wheels was a big leap. "The idea of not having a car physically parked outside the front of the house, I have to say, that was a huge psychological barrier," he said. "It's turned out not to be a big hardship in practice."

At AutoShare, members get 24-hour, self-service access to a fleet of Toyota Corollas and Suzuki Aerios parked at 39 locations throughout Toronto. When they're finished, they return the car to its designated spot. At the end of the month, they get a bill for their usage.

Members pay $4 to $6 an hour, depending on the plan they choose, plus a per-kilometre charge of 15 cents. The company covers fuel, repairs and insurance, but if a member is at fault in an accident he or she is responsible for the $500 deductible.

For Mr. Upward, sharing a car is significantly cheaper than owning. He spends an average of $160 a month on AutoShare -- or $1,920 annually . That's about what he would pay in insurance alone if he owned a car. Upon joining, he also had to fork over a one-time membership fee of $500, which is refundable if he decides to leave.

By comparison, the average cost of owning a car -- including fuel, maintenance, tires, interest expense, depreciation, insurance, licence and registration -- is $7,733.40 annually for a 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier driven 12,000 kilometres, according to the Canadian Automobile Association.

AutoShare says that drivers obtain a car 95 per cent of the time they ask for one, but it advises people to book in advance to make sure the vehicle they want is available.

With insurance premiums skyrocketing, more drivers are kicking the tires of car-sharing services. AutoShare, which was launched in 1998, now has 950 members and is adding about 50 people a month, said president Kevin McLaughlin.

"We're growing faster today than we ever have," he said.

Competition is heating up. In July, AutoShare's former president, Liz Reynolds, launched a rival service in Toronto called DASHcar.

The company, which has 14 cars and plans to add another 20 this fall, sells prepaid bundles of hours and kilometres, much like a phone card.

The "Dash-25 Plan", for instance, costs $125 for 25 hours and 125 kilometres, while the "Dash-100 Plan" costs $350 for 100 hours and 500 km. In addition, it charges a non-refundable $50 membership fee, $25 application fee and a refundable $25 deposit for a swipe card that unlocks the vehicle.

Whereas AutoShare members record mileage manually, DASHcar logs usage data electronically. "We have an on-board computer that tracks your time and distance and that all comes back to us wirelessly," Ms. Reynolds said.

And while AutoShare stores its keys in a secure location near its vehicles, DASHcar leaves the keys in its cars. To prevent theft, the vehicles won't start unless someone swipes the card over a sensor in the corner of the windshield to enable the engine.

Car-sharing services are springing up across North America. Seattle-based Flexcar, which was launched in 2000, now offers service in more than 20 cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland and Washington, D.C. Zipcar, based in Cambridge, Mass., operates in Boston, New York and Washington.

In Canada, cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., have non-profit car-sharing co-operatives, while a company called Communauto serves Montreal, Quebec City and other markets. (For a list of services in North America and Europe, visit http://www.carsharing.net.)

Car-sharing isn't recommended for everyone.

People who drive to work are better off owning or leasing. And for anyone travelling out of town for a weekend or more, it's probably cheaper to rent a car. (Car-sharing members often qualify for discounts at rental companies.) Sharing is most suited to people who don't drive a lot.

It's a way to pay only for the time they actually use an automobile, not the hours it sits in the driveway.

For some, car-sharing takes the place of a second car. Elizabeth Verwey, a consultant in Toronto, joined DASHcar recently because she and her husband sometimes needed their Ford Focus at the same time. Now, she gets a car whenever she wants one. And, she added, "we don't have to think about washing the car or changing the oil."

© The Globe and Mail

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