Colleges use car-sharing to cut down congestion

On a campus where students outnumber parking spaces nearly three to one, Boise State University has finally convinced 23-year-old Wayel Alwayel he no longer needs the car he brought to campus with him as a freshman.

The new hybrid car parked near the student union building this fall, available for $8 an hour, sealed the deal. Behind the wheel of the rental, Alwayel realized just how tired he was of paying for his own gas, paying for his own insurance.

"Everybody was like, 'How did you get this car?" said Alwayel, a senior who plans to sell his nine-year-old Mitsubishi sedan and rent one of the four Zipcars on campus if he needs to go to the mall or run an errand.

"It's cheaper," he said. "You don't have to pay the gas, you don't have to have insurance, which is really cool."

Colleges hoping to steer students and faculty away from bringing their vehicles to campus to help relieve parking congestion and promote environmentally friendly transportation are increasingly turning to the concept of car sharing.

Boise State is among more than 30 universities and colleges that have introduced Zipcars to students this fall.

The University of Colorado at Boulder works with a local nonprofit, eGO CarShare, to offer a car sharing service to students and faculty, according to its Web site. West Virginia University launched an hourly car rental program last year and has since teamed up with Zipcar Inc. to expand the service.

For a generation of college students who grew up downloading music song by song instead of buying entire CDs, the whole borrowing-instead-of-buying concept hasn't exactly been a hard sell.

Throw in the recession, and parents are on board too.

"I think one of the key drivers is Zipcar really helps to save people money, and that's really important to college students, as well as their parents," said Greg Winter, a spokesman for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company.

There's also the bling factor, if only for a few hours.

When Alwayel, the Boise State student, and his wife, 20-year-old Fatemah, needed a ride to the Boise Islamic Center for a Ramadan gathering, they left their old car at home and went online to reserve the dark blue Prius parked on campus.

"It's a brand new car, and mine is old," Alwayel said.

While major metropolitan cities have long offered car sharing services, the idea is relatively new to more rural states like Idaho, said Casey Jones, director of transportation and parking at Boise State. The school's new car sharing service is Idaho's first, said Jones, who also sits on the International Parking Institute's board of directors.

"That creates some challenges for us, students have much less exposure to the concept," Jones said.

The idea of car sharing was spawned in Switzerland in 1987, when Mobility Car Sharing put its first car on the road in the traffic-congested city of Lucerne. The company now has 2,200 cars at 1,000 locations, according to its Web site.

The Swiss company's success was duplicated in big cities in Austria, France, Sweden and Germany, and the idea spread overseas to Canada in 1995. The first American car-sharing company opened in 1998 in Portland, Ore., where Jones was overseeing the city's off-street parking system at the time.

He was hired at Boise State earlier this year.

From his office on the first floor of a parking garage on the south end of campus, Jones is within earshot of the clamoring of heavy machinery as construction crews work on new buildings, which further reduce available space for surface parking lots.

The campus has nearly 20,000 students, about 2,000 faculty and staff, and just 7,000 parking spaces.

"It's pretty easy, using quick math, to know that we don't have a parking space for everyone," Jones said. "We're really moving forward on alternatives to driving alone, more sustainable choices."

The university developed a Web site that allows students to track the free campus shuttle from their computer or cell phone. To encourage more people to bike, the school built special gated areas that can only be accessed by students and faculty who sign up and pay for the security service.

The car sharing service primarily targets students who live on campus, but Jones hopes the idea will spread.

"There's a secondary group and that is people like me," he said. "I ride my bike to work, but there are going to be occasions where I need to go to the dentist or I need to run an errand and I need a car for that. Car sharing is a perfect solution for that kind of thing."