Zipcar Los Angeles Test: A One-Way Ticket to Car Sharing

Car-sharing service ZipCar

Car-sharing services like Zipcar’s cut down on traffic volume and emissions | Source: Zipcar

If there is one place that needs fewer cars on the road, Los Angeles would get our vote. The volume of freeway and city traffic you encounter on your average L.A. day has to be experienced to be believed. And then you have to park. Because of the dearth of public transportation options, there really is no opt-out clause for Angelenos to take. Either you own a car, you make huge sacrifices, or you become Uber’s best customer.

With the arrival of Zipcar’s one-way service to the City of Angels, there are more ways to keep the family vehicle count down to one. Launched in February with L.A. as the first market, the flexible service includes free gas, guaranteed parking, and the option to extend a reservation when you have a car in your possession. You can also change your destination as long as there is a Zipcar lot somewhere nearby. Then you leave it and you’re done.

On a recent trip through L.A., we thought it would be a good time to see how the service works for a traveler with at least some familiarity with local roads. The application process, approval, and card pickup to get started were fast. We did it all before leaving from New York, and it took a total of a few days. Membership starts at $7 per month with insurance pegged at $9 per month.

Since we had another car for the week we were in L.A., Zipcar’s flexible service served as a second car, and in our case it worked out perfectly. If we had been staying in a neighborhood where the most cars are available, it would have been more useful. L.A. residents may be able to leave the car at home or save on what would have been a pricey ride-share trip using the service. The free parking may be the clincher for those on the fence.

Where it works in L.A.

ZipCar's one-way service runs on Honda Fits

Zipcar’s one-way service runs on Honda Fits | Source: ZipCar

Scanning the L.A. map on Zipcar.com or the (recommended) app, you can see where cars are available in your area. Our address for the week in Echo Park was several miles from the nearest location, so it didn’t work out for nights in town. You will see icons showing where cars are available, and the list is extensive: On any given day, we saw options downtown, in Koreatown, by the Walk of Fame, in West Hollywood, and on the UCLA campus, among other spots.

After a few days in the desert, we closed out our trip with a night in Long Beach, and Zipcar has a presence there as well as in Torrance, Santa Ana, and other less-central locations. We picked up a ride in a parking lot a few blocks from the beach and, more importantly, right next to the train station. Theoretically, drivers could drop the car and hop on the train to L.A., which studies have shown car-share customers do when public transit is accessible.

In this case, we opted for the Zipcar rather than taking our primary car to town for a show at Largo on La Cienega in West Hollywood. Using the membership card to unlock a Honda Fit on Long Beach Boulevard, we spent some time locally before heading downtown. These cars don’t have navigation built into the system, so drivers will need enough battery to run the apps on your phone if you need directions to where you are headed.

Travel and pricing notes

Los Angeles skyline

Los Angeles | David McNew/Getty Images

After reserving the car for 3:30 p.m., we had a change of plans and had to extend the period for another hour. This change was easily handled in the app before having the car in our possession. A few hours of noodling around Long Beach required another extension before heading into L.A. By the end of our heavily modified trip, the price came to $38 for four hours, which included parking in a garage on Melrose and La Cienega.

We had checked the price of a Lyft prior to leaving, and it would have been more. Considering the convenience and comfort of being in our own ride and controlling the stereo on the way — not to mention having the car in our possession for so long — it’s easy to call this trip a steal. Dropping the car in a valet garage without so much as a wink at parking attendants might be worth the cost for some drivers.

The return trip to Long Beach was more complicated. Lyft pricing stood at around $40, but we initially had trouble finding a Zipcar we could drive one-way to the LBC. (Several sat unused in the Melrose-La Cienega garage.) After several attempts, we got clearance to drop one at the Cal-State Long Beach campus.

Timing was also tricky. Because we reserved just after midnight, we were forced to wait until 15 minutes before the 12:30 a.m. reservation began. Once inside, there were no surprises, though we did need to get a ride-share to cover the longer trip back to our apartment from the campus. But add in the Lyft ($10) to the Zipcar from L.A. to Cal-State ($15) and the trip was still a bargain.

Zipcar flexible service pros and cons

A Zipcar is displayed during a promotion of the short term car rental company

Zipcar has a green case for L.A. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Pros

  • Convenience: One-way is infinitely easier to manage than round-trip-only service. This factor may bring many people into car-sharing who were reluctant in the past.
  • Cost: With pricing by the hour and no parking, gas, or mileage fees, there is no cheaper way to drive without owning a car.
  • Green impact: Honda Fits top out at 41 miles per gallon on the highway, so you’re driving green. Eco Assist tells you just how green. Plus there are no wasted round trips. Finally, don’t underestimate the power of instant parking. You never have to drive around looking for a space, so emissions are the bare minimum.
  • Time: Knowing where and how you’re parking saves you time.
  • Vehicle: Honda Fit is a lively little car with 16.6 cubic feet of storage capacity — more than a Camry. Drivers usually do far worse. (See: Car2Go’s Smart cars.)

Cons

  • No navigation: Zipcar’s Fits don’t have navigation, which comes in handy when traveling into parts unknown. We liked the standard nav in Car2Go vehicles.
  • No guaranteed return car: Because area needs change, you may have to find another way back if you plan to make a round trip of split one-ways. In these cases, you’ll want to reserve the car for the full night. We get it, but it defeats some of the purpose by rendering cars in the garage unusable.
  • Potentially loud exteriors: We drove one lime-green Fit with Zipcar logos plastered all over it. That car definitely turned heads. Fortunately, most are far more subtle.
  • Hipster blackout: No Silver Lake or Echo Park? We expect there are car-sharers in these parts, even if parking is limited.

Verdict: Overall, this service is highly useful and very affordable. If they had it in New York, we’d pick it up in a second. We’re recommending it to our Angeleno friends.

Disclaimer: Zipcar waived the membership fee and provided drive credit so Autos Cheat Sheet could test its flexible service in Los Angeles.

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