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Car sharing offers USF students wheels without the hassle this fall

Phil Winters of the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research demonstrates how to open a Toyota Prius using the WeCar access card. The university owns three Toyota  Priuses and one Ford Escape. 

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Phil Winters of the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research demonstrates how to open a Toyota Prius using the WeCar access card. The university owns three Toyota Priuses and one Ford Escape. 

TAMPA — Julia Pappacoda doesn't like depending on fellow students for rides to the supermarket, especially when classes and studying get in the way.

"We're always willing to help each other out, to go grocery shopping or to the mall, but sometimes it can feel kind of bad depending on someone else," said Pappacoda, 19, a University of South Florida sophomore. "It's not always convenient to your schedule or theirs."

Pappacoda and other carless USF students might not be so needy come this fall.

Car sharing, a program that allows students and others to rent vehicles by the hour, is coming to USF.

Users make reservations online, pick up the vehicles at designated parking spots and return them to the same location. A magnetic card opens the doors and starts the rental clock. Hourly fees usually range from $7 to $10, which includes gas and insurance.

About 200 U.S. colleges and universities, including the University of Florida and the University of Miami, and dozens of cities have some form of car sharing. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton is studying the idea. A survey of 6,700 USF students two years ago said about 30 percent found it appealing.

The university recently won a $144,000 state grant to fund its program over two years using an Enterprise Rent-A-Car subsidiary called WeCar.

WeCar provided three Toyota Priuses and one Ford Escape sport utility vehicle — all hybrids — and will handle reservations.

A news conference to announce the program is scheduled at USF today.

"This is a way for us to introduce a car-sharing program and study its effectiveness," said Phil Winters, a transportation researcher at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research. "By offering car sharing, it gives students more options, knowing there are times when people have to depend on a car to run an errand."

The program's pricing structure is still being worked out. Flat rates will run $10 per hour for a Prius and $12 hourly for the Escape after users pay a one-time $20 registration fee and $50 annual membership fee. But the program also will include a variable pricing option still being determined.

Winters said center researchers want to see what impact adjustable rates have on the vehicles' usage, whether, for example, low rates at off-peak hours entice more users, making the program more effective than traditional flat rates.

The center recently received $331,289 from the Federal Highway Administration to conduct the study over three years. WeCar, which runs five university-based car-share programs around the country, isn't sure how many USF students will sign up.

It expects most users will be students living on campus. The fall semester starts Aug. 24, and the university has 46,100 students enrolled, but only 10 to 15 percent will stay in dorms.

USF has 5,400 beds, including 1,050 additional ones set to open at new dormitories this fall. It has another 13,200 employees who are eligible for the program.

The company's aim is sign up at least 200 people, and it intends to blitz the campus with marketing materials as students start checking in next month.

"With USF we're bringing the program really for the benefit of the students. It's mostly for students but also for staff," WeCar assistant vice president Ryan Johnson said.

USF contacted Enterprise a few months ago after a deal with car-sharing provider FlexCar fell through when the company and the nation's largest car sharer, ZipCar of Cambridge, Mass., merged. Car sharing has its origins in Europe in the 1980s and gained a foothold in the United States in 1998 when the nation's first commercial car-sharing company, CarSharing Portland, debuted.

David Brook, the founder of CarSharing Portland and a car-sharing consultant, ended up selling his company to Seattle's FlexCar a few years later.

Most of the industry's growth on U.S. campuses he attributes to the concentration of carless students living on a budget who might need a rental to run to the laundry and supermarket. Making reservations online eliminates the need to stand around a rental agency filling out forms, and most agencies rent only to people 21 or older. For a WeCar, one need only be a licensed driver, 18 or older, with a credit card.

Colleges like car sharing because it lessens the burden on strained parking systems.

ZipCar dominates more than half of the college market, says Brook. "FlexCar and ZipCar really targeted the college market early on, and when they merged last year, they doubled the number of colleges."

But the concept also has adherents in cities, from Miami Beach, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston to Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. New York City alone has more than 1,500 car-share vehicles for hire, says Kevin McLaughlin, publisher of the nonprofit CarSharing.net.

"Once the Internet got going in the late 1990s, it really became so much easier," he said. The Tampa Downtown Partnership considered car sharing two years ago when 11,000 condos were being planned over the next decade, but then the housing slump hit, and construction slowed.

"I don't know if downtown Tampa is ready yet," partnership marketing director Paul Ayers said Tuesday. "You need fairly dense population numbers. We just not there yet. Maybe in the future." The University of Florida, which started three years ago with car sharing, rents out seven vehicles — three Honda Civic hybrids, a Toyota Corolla, two Honda Odyssey vans and a Toyota pickup. Students pay $7 an hour.

"You get 180 miles of travel, and that includes gas and insurance. If you want to use that to make a shopping run or even a trip to the beach, it ends up being a reasonable commute," said Ron Fuller, assistant director of transportation and parking services at UF. "It's really about sustainability."

The talk at USF is about sustainability as well, although parking tends to be an issue with 20,856 parking spaces and more than 48,000 parking permits sold to students and faculty members last year.

"The whole idea is to give people options and to make them aware that they do have options to driving alone," Winters said. "Our hope is we also see more people using transit more often, as well as biking and carpooling.

"When people talk about multi­modal strategies, we looked at this as a good complementary choice. It's not just a safety net, but is complementary to all those other alternatives to driving by yourself."

Get the details

To learn more about the car rental plan visit the agency's Web site at www.wecar.com.

Car sharing offers USF students wheels without the hassle this fall 07/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 7:35am]

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