Discolor Online

Weblog of the sweetest person you never want to piss off.


Zipcar: It's No Flexcar

Longtime readers know that I was a big fan of Flexcar and used the service for over four years before they merged with Zipcar. Things had started to go downhill with the car-sharing when the Washington State Department of Revenue insisted on charging a car "rental" tax of 9.7% on Flexcar users. That situation was never reversed or resolved, despite last year's assurances from my representative Margarita Prentice that that she was "pleased to report the Governor's office, the Department of Revenue and others are working on language that will address the differences between a rental car company and a 'flexcar' program."

I've been living with Zipcar for a while now and I have to say that it reminds me all too much of my experience of being a happy Homegrocer.com subscriber who then saw things go dramatically downhill after the merger with Webvan, much as another disappointed subscriber's opinion piece from 2001 details here. When the Zipcar/Flexcar merger hit the news, company spokespeople and optimistic users were spouting off about how "increased access to cars" through the merger would be great and "outweigh" concerns over shrinking competition. Uh huh.

Erica Barnett at The Slog (Seattle's free weekly paper The Stranger's blog, for those outside the area) blogged about Zipcar's perceived flaws and failures back in February. Higher monthly minimums and higher hourly rates, hybrids classified under "premium" rates alongside luxury vehicles, stiff penalties for "infractions" (5 minutes late returning even though no one else had reserved the car for use? $50 fine!) instead of credits and incentives for pitching in, fees to talk to an actual person to address any issues, etc. These things combined with the fact that we're also paying 9.7% state "rental car" tax, 6.5% state sales tax, and 2.5% King county/RTA tax makes the whole carshare prospect a lot less attractive than it used to be.

Last week was perhaps my worst week ever with Zipcar. Monday the 14th they announced that they were rearranging their pricing, focusing on the fact that they were lowering the rate on hybrids. Had they not raised the price on hybrids (not to mention replaced my local hybrid with a bare bones Subaru) I might have celebrated that news, but I would not have been celebrating for long because that mail was immediately followed by another mail that announced that they were removing my local Zipcar location altogether, immediately. As in had probably already been done by the time I received the mail at 6:30pm. A third e-mail told of the awesome new gas cards and how to use them (this will be important to the story later).

Thursday I reserved a Zipcar for the day. My nearest option is now 2 miles away instead of six blocks. I arrived at my car and opened it up to find shards of glass from a previously broken window strewn throughout the car. Someone had replaced the window and cleaned up most of the glass but there were still shards everywhere (the seats and the floor, front and back, the dashboard, everywhere). The driver's side door armrest had also been ripped away from the door and was still partially detatched. I called to report the damage, but where with Flexcar I had the option of talking to an actual person, Zipcar automates the damage report. I had no idea if Zipcar wanted me to continue with my reservation or if this was something they might have wanted to investigate further right away... but I needed the car and was on a schedule so I had to take it as it was. At the end of my reservation I needed to stop for gas because the car was completely empty. I almost never let the car get that low but this was an unfamiliar car and the gas gauge was in a different location and I flat out missed it until the little red gas pump came on to warn me to fill up. At that point I discovered that my car had not yet been outfitted with its (and I quote) "more stylish, more reliable and more efficient gas card" but the old card that remained in the car no longer worked. I called customer service and chose the option to speak to an actual person (which may or may not have cost me $3.50). However, speaking to an actual person did me no good. She had no clue about the old cards, seemed to be only on hand to talk to people who couldn't figure out the new cards and when her script didn't cover my situation she told me that my only option was to pay to put gas in the car myself and send in the receipt. "You won't be charged as long as there's at least a quarter tank," she chirped. Awesome. Car now 2 miles away, had to deal with broken glass all over, and got to spot Zipcar a full quarter tank of gas on my dime.

I suppose you can tell that I'm feeling a little disgruntled over this, but it gets better! Today I received an e-mail about a damage inquiry on my former local Zipcar. "We are not assigning blame, we are simply following up on the report that we received," the letter read, and then goes on in the very next sentence, "Per our Member Agreement (section 9.6), damages incurred during a member's reservation are the responsibility of that member." Now, this is not an inquiry about the car I just recently used, but a vehicle I last drove A MONTH AGO, on June 20th. In my history with Flexcar I've been diligent about reporting damage, so much so that when I called to report that a pebble had kicked up on the freeway and dinged the windshield they told me not to worry about reporting it unless the windshield was actually cracked. Now, a month after I've used the car they're going to try to put some damage off on me? Oh, I know, I know, they say they're just investigating and not assigning blame but after last week I'm not feeling very generous towards Zipcar. In fact, if they do decide that the damage somehow happened on my watch and I'm responsible for it at this point, you can bet that's the day when I become a FORMER Zipcar member in a right hurry.

It's like Homegrocer all over again. I'll still be missing Flexcar after Zipcar is gone.

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Prep Day

I spent a large portion of today either online or on the couch combing through recipe books and magazines in preparation for a big cooking day. I put together a list of recipes that freeze well and am going to stock the freezers (which had been recently cleaned out by Mr. P and myself with just this sort of thing in mind). Last night I baked up an apple coffee cake that was extremely apple-rich (to the point that I worried there'd be no "cake" to hold the apples together) for my hard-working husband to take to the office with him today as his department is in the last push before "content complete" on Monday. He's going in again tomorrow but they ate all the coffee cake today, so I may have to come up with another treat for the hard working Flying Lab ConCo folks.

It's been a couple of years since Flexcar let me down but it happened today in a minor way. Luckily I was flexible and it wasn't a situation where I had an appointment or a deadline like making it to the post office before the Express Mail cut off. The two nearest Flexcars to me were either booked already or not available for the entire time slot I wanted, so I ventured a little further afield to get my third choice. This involves a short bus ride followed by a half mile stroll. Today when I arrived at the location, the car would not respond to my keycard and after a while on hold and talking to two different people, it wouldn't unlock remotely for Flexcar HQ and I had to book yet a different Flexcar (and walk another half mile or so). This ate into about an hour of my errand-running time and by the time I finished everything and got home, I was in no mood to try to cook anything nor did I have much time to fool around before I had to get the car back to its inconvenient location. It's not exactly in a bad/scary area but it's definitely not a nice area and it's not somewhere I relished walking around alone (or waiting for the unreliable bus) at night.

In the end, Chris and I grabbed a late dinner at Geraldine's Counter and he came with me to return the car. We walked the mile back up to the top of Beacon Hill where we could get our comfy and familiar #36 bus back to our house. Groceries are put away, delicious comfort food eaten, recipes lined up and ready to go as soon as I care to tomorrow. Chris will be working at Flying Lab a healthy portion of the day and Kate will be spending the day with her dad so I will be alone to cook, cook, cook.

I'm looking forward to it.

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Flexcar Tax Update

As I'm sure most who read this blog know already, I'm an opinionated woman. I have a bit of a knack for complaint letters in particular, to the point that some of my friends will refer to "pulling a Nicole" or ask for my advice when writing such letters for themselves. (And, to be fair, I do try to share positive experiences and send a little love around when things go right...it's not all complaints!) I do not hesitate to write my representatives about issues of law and governance, I'm not shy about communicating with companies I'm going business with about my experiences and expectations. I hadn't known about the Washington state tax on Flexcar for a day before I'd written to my state representatives, the Seattle Mayor's office, and the Office of Sustainability and Environment.

Last week I heard back from the OSE:
Thanks for your email about this. We appreciate all you're doing to protect the environment.

This is definitely an important issue, but one that is governed at the state level. We understand that the Governor is planning to work with the department implementing this tax (which says it has to by law) to see what can be done to change it. If that is unsuccessful, then there are plans to introduce legislation that would change the law to accommodate programs such as FlexCar.

We have passed your message on to staff in the Office of Intergovermental Relations, which works closely with state-level policymakers.

Thanks again for letting us know about this.


Jeanie Boawn, Admin. Staff Analyst

Tonight I heard back from my state senator, Margarita Prentice:
Dear Nicole:

Just a quick note to thank you for your e-mail message. I'm pleased to report the Governor's office, the Department of Revenue and others are working on language that will address the differences between a rental car company and a "flexcar" program. It's very tedious and technical but my hands-on source expressed optimism this will be concluded before the implementation date.

Thanks, again, for taking the time to write. I appreciate your information and the opportunity to provide an update.

Margarita Prentice
State Senator ~ 11th Legislative District
Chair, Ways and Means Committee

I have no gut feeling for how many other people may have called or written these same people looking for answers to the Flexcar problem, or any number of other issues, or where a Flexcar tax lands in the scale of things they're trying to juggle. I am very glad that there seems to be enough political will to make the changes necessary to reverse a short-sighted policy that undermines the good progressive programs like Flexcar offer our region. I hope Senator Prentice is correct that the changes can be in place before the tax would be applied.

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Flexcar is being forced by the Washington Department of Revenue to charge its members "rental car tax" beginning October 1. Upon hearing this yesterday I immediately wrote to my state senator, my state representatives (although Zack Hudgins should be ashamed to represent residents of Seattle without providing an e-mail contact or a phone number where constituents can leave voice mail for him! Join the 21st century, Rep. Hudgins!), and appealed to the City of Seattle through their Office of Sustainability and Environment to apply the necessary political pressure and exempt Flexcar from this tax.

My view is that Flexcar and other car-sharing services are not "car rental" businesses in the traditional sense. Car sharing programs are overwhelmingly used by local residents. Flexcar provides a community service and should be encouraged by state and local government that proports to be interested in conservation, reducing traffic congestion, or making Seattle "a model of healthy, ecologically sustainable urban living." Back in April, King County Executive Ron Sims said "...we believe itís important that people take public transportation, and as neighborhoods densify, that there actually be at times cars available for those unique times, when you canít take the bus to a doctor appointment, or a dental appointment...". Instead, car sharing participants are disincentivized from participating by the application of an 18.7% tax! Outrageous and completely wrongheaded.

This tax will add $75 a month to my typical Flexcar bill. The result will be that I will be less likely to use Flexcar and more and more tempted to just go back to car ownership. How many of the other 20,000 Flexcar users in the Seattle area are going to face a similar decision? This is not the direction the State and local politicians claim they want things to be moving and should be vigorously opposed.

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Carless in Seattle

Maybe I should have been more aggressive in promoting my decision to go carless after an accident cut our wheels out from under us three years ago. Maybe I could have turned it into a freelance writing gig or some other form of self-promotion... Sightline Institute founder Alan Durning has commemorated his mere one year of carlessness (for the same accidental reason) with a blog post and even though he's what others might consider a hardcore environmentalism/sustainability researcher, after a year of living the carless life in Seattle his family is still on the fence about committing to remaining carless in the longterm.

Reading the reporting today on just the fact that his family had gone a year without owning a car (instead using Flexcar, carpooling, biking, walking and borrowing) I was surprised at the backlash from people who felt that anyone advocating, even a little, that people could benefit physically, mentally, and financially by driving less must be planning to violently separate them from their cars. Comments on the Stranger Blog like these surprised me: "Oh, the sanctimony." and "What are the odds that the happily carless all just happen to live and work near good bus lines? It's not like a person can just plan it like that on purpose." Ok, yes, living within reasonable distance of a bus line is key to being able to live a life that depends on transit but the idea that we're all completely powerless and "can't" plan for such things, or that doing so makes one sanctimonious? Wow.

Living in Seattle, it's pretty easy to get around without owning a car but it's not painless. It's still a sacrifice, an inconvenience, and even a drag. I know that full well. Still, Pramas and I chose to live where we do precisely because of the transit lines: He doesn't drive and never has. Even though I owned a car, when we bought this house we were working at opposite ends of the city (me up in near the University and him down in Renton). A house in the secluded suburbs, predicated on driving everywhere for everything was not an option. The fact that two bus routes cross at the corner a few blocks from our house was a BIG selling point. The projected lightrail route that would be just another few blocks away (which we initially had hoped would be in by now, in fact) was another huge bonus that favorably impacted our decision. Even though we had a car at the time, transit considerations were part of the process.

Flexcar is certainly a boon and I wouldn't call my lifestyle "carless" since I do drive. In fact, my divorce agreement necessitates that I drive my daughter to see her father at least twice a month. I don't walk or bike nearly as much as I can (or should, considering my otherwise sedentary lifestyle). I've certainly gotten more rides home from Ray and Christine, Jess, and John and Jenny than I can count. I find that I don't go outside of my own pretty small circle of influence: I could take the bus out to visit Tim, or Evan and Rona but it's inconvenient, involves two or three bus transfers, limits my travel hours and, excuse piled on excuse, the bottom line is it's a pain in the ass so I don't do it. I could do more carlessly but I don't. It's not "I can't" but "I don't"; I choose not to, I'm responsible for that choice.

I'm not going to condemn anyone who doesn't make the same choices I do. Like Alan Durning, I often re-examine my situation and weigh the options, reconsider whether we should get a car again. I know I wouldn't want to try living without a car if I had a baby, for example. I've frequently wondered if Kate is suffering from not being part of those extra-curricular activities that I've avoided signing her up for because transportation would be too much of a hassle. On the other hand, Seattle provides about as many opportunities to live this way as a city can and at the end of the day I still feel pretty good about how our choice works for us and the positive impact we have on our community. It wouldn't kill a few more people to give a little more thought to restructuring their lives and giving it a try.

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