Low-Car Diet

Our writer parks the Honda Civic and walks, bikes or Zipcars for two weeks

Fun, easy, eco-friendly—this writer liked Zipcar, but isn’t going to sell her Honda Civic just yet.

Fun, easy, eco-friendly—this writer liked Zipcar, but isn’t going to sell her Honda Civic just yet.

Photo By SHOKA

About a year ago, the city of Sacramento wanted to decrease spending on its vehicle fleet and solicited car-sharing program proposals. Zipcar won the bid and, last month, introduced 10 cars at five locations around downtown and Midtown.

So, with Zipcar, bike trails and public transportation, could an urban couple afford to live carless? I was hoping to finally sell a Honda Civic and reduce consumption of fossil fuels, so my husband and I tried this “Low-Car Diet” for two weeks.

The results were underwhelming.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, owning a car is an American household’s second largest expense, at 17 percent of average expenditures in 2004. The bureau also reported that individual homes spent an average of $8,758 on all forms of transportation in ’07, but only about $500 on public transit such as buses, trains and airplanes.

Still, saving money was just one consideration. According to the London-based Young Foundation, the longer your commute, the unhappier you are. And a recent study by the New Economics Foundation on the power of well-being noted “persistent and significant [health] costs associated with a long commute through heavy traffic.”

By contrast, research comparing bicycle and car commutes concludes that cyclists generally experience lower stress and greater feelings of freedom, relaxation and excitement.

And then there’s the environmental impact of not owning a car. According to the website Cut CO2, “Avoiding just 10 miles of driving every week would eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.”

For the “diet,” the folks at Zipcar provided us a free membership (which normally costs $50, plus a one-time $25 activation fee) and some driving credits. Zipcar members pay an hourly rate to rent, and the car comes with gas and insurance.

My husband and I are a single-car couple living in Curtis Park who carpools or bikes to work. We’re both pretty independent from the car—or so I thought.

Every two weeks, we spend about $50 on gas, $5 on maintenance and $31.50 on insurance, which equals $86.50 (or $2,249 annually). With a Zipcar, driving four trips every two weeks adds up to $1,714, which would be a savings of $535 annually.

But “dieting” turned previously quick errands into hard-core workouts. Most trips were easier, quicker and cheaper on bike than public transit, so using Regional Transit never happened. Plus, when a trip was too far by bike, it was usually more than an hour on public transit, too, and who has time for that?

Meanwhile, using Zipcar is convenient for short trips. Rates in Sacramento start at $8 an hour ($9 on weekends). Picking up a car is easy: Take out the Zipcar card, hold it over a card reader on the upper-left side of the windshield and the doors magically unlock. Slide in to the nice new car and keys are hanging right by the ignition.

And Zipcar is fun. But let’s crunch the numbers: Using Zipcar for a 90-minute tutoring session, I ended up only earning around $3 for the work. Not so great.

Another snag with Zipcar: You can fashion your own life in Sacramento to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly, but you can’t control your friends. I didn’t want a friend to buy a house in Natomas, but he did. And he’s throwing a barbecue; a Zipcar for the party, from 4 to 9 p.m., would cost around $45.

That’s the rub: During the two-week diet, I had a bridal shower in Rocklin and Easter dinner in Roseville. So, despite the expense and environmental impact of owning a car, getting rid of my personal vehicle for Zipcar wasn’t entirely feasible.