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In shadow of Uber and Lyft, car sharing tries to shape a future in Tampa Bay

The first time Ray Chiaramonte saw a Zipcar in Tampa Bay was just a few weeks ago, in the parking lot at WestShore Plaza.

He noticed the car-sharing company's bright green decal and Zorro-like "Z" symbol on the side of the vehicle.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, we finally have this here in Tampa,' " said Chiaramonte, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Car-sharing companies have been in Tampa Bay since before anyone was using the words Uber or Lyft. But the rollout of the business model — which lets users rent a car by the hour or the day usually online or through an app — has been slow to catch on.

That's probably because most residents here already have their own cars, unlike in San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle or other cities where urban residents don't necessarily need a car to get around.

Zipcar began in Massachusetts in 2000, but didn't make its way into Tampa until about a year ago. The company was bought by Avis Budget Group in 2013. Now the company is preparing to expand its local fleet when the new rental car facility opens at Tampa International Airport next year.

Zipcar currently operates eight cars in Tampa, with pickup and dropoff locations at the University of Tampa, the Tampa Marriott Westshore and at the Payless Car Rental near the airport. Plans are in the works to have a few cars available to rent at luxury apartment building SkyHouse in Channelside, said Smokshane West, the Florida market manager for Zipcar. Residents will get a discount, but the cars will be available for use by anyone in the area.

Zipcar is also talking with transit organizations in Tampa to expand further, West said.

"We haven't made a major push to grow our business. It's grown organically, and we haven't seen a decline since we launched in Florida," West said. "What we've learned over the last 15 months in Florida is that this isn't just a business model for millennials. Baby boomers are moving back into the cities, and we're seeing more and more want to use our cars."

The University of South Florida partners with Enterprise to host a car-sharing program on campuses in St. Petersburg and Tampa. Since the program began in 2009 as a research project for USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research, it has continued to grow, said Phillip Winters, a director with CUTR at USF in Tampa.

USF was Enterprise's third university car-sharing program in the United States, said Chad Elwood, business rental sales manager for Enterprise in Tampa. Enterprise CarShare (formerly called WeCar) is now available in more than 35 states, Canada and the United Kingdom, including on more than 100 university campuses.

"It's completely self-sustained," Winters said. He did note that the program is a little less popular on the St. Petersburg campus than in Tampa.

The fleet is made up of Nissan vehicles, and you don't have to be a student to use them.

Car sharing makes a lot of sense for college students. But with the rise of options like Uber and Lyft, is car sharing a viable business in Tampa Bay?

Zipcar seems to think so.

"Tampa is car-centric place, still. You don't have a choice but to own a car," West says. "But the demand is growing quickly."

Orlando and Miami surpass Tampa with triple and quadruple the number of Zipcars on the road. But new trends are emerging that might drive more business in Tampa Bay, West said.

"We get a lot of foreign tourists using our cars in Florida who don't really need a rental car for an entire week," he said. The company also sees an opportunity to break into the snowbird market.

"We get calls from condo building managers asking us to put cars in their buildings all the time," West said. "To help alleviate the number of cars that just sit for months and take up space in these garages."

Car sharing plays into the "sharing economy" movement that rose after the recession, in which fewer owned than rented, and the idea of "sharing" a car made a lot more financial sense.

"What struck me most about car sharing is the fact that most cars sit unused for most of the day, even though they're one of the largest expenses in a household," said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

The challenge for Tampa Bay, she said, will be ensuring there are enough alternative transportation options to support a car sharing program. That means better public transportation, bike-sharing programs, shuttle services and other ways to get around.

It's no question that "Tampa is one of the more car-dependent areas of our size in the country," Chiaramonte said. "If we're really going to compete on a tourist level, at some point we're going to have to appeal to a younger generation and to tourists from other countries that are used to these services and better public transit. Having car-sharing companies moves us forward. The more options we have, whether it be Uber or Zipcar, the better off we are."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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