Zipcar Takes the Anti-Urban Route

zipcar.jpgPhoto via PSFK

While Zipcar looks to entice drivers to give up vehicle ownership, another pillar of its marketing strategy is that car-sharing is an environmentally friendly service for city dwellers who normally travel by other means, presumably including public transit and even their own two feet.

This is why a couple of recent Zipcar campaigns are so puzzling. As seen on PSFK, Zipcar staffers were spotted "clocking" and "ticketing" New York pedestrians for moving too slowly. In an earlier print campaign, the company encouraged subway riders to "burn rubber," and pictured a Zipcar peeling out like a race car — not the most responsible message in a city where pedestrians die at the hands of motorists an average of once every three days.

Transportation Alternatives tried to get Zipcar to pull the "burn rubber" ads. But despite a pledge that the company would not only nix the campaign but do more to educate its clients on safe driving, nothing has happened.

Instead of goading pedestrians and transit users into getting behind the wheel, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to get car owners to reduce congestion and pollution by swapping their daily driver for a Zipcar membership and a MetroCard?

We have a message in with chief marketer Victoria Godfrey about the pedestrian promotion. In the meantime, here’s an Advertising Age interview from January where Godfrey discusses Zipcar’s "feet-on-the-street" growth philosophy.

  • I have emailed Zipcar to complain about their leaflets showing someone using a Zipcar to pick up a couple of bags of groceries – which reinforces auto dependency by conveying the message that it is impossible to buy food without a car. I have been carrying my groceries home by bike for many years, and if I had larger purchases, I would use a bike trailer.

    I also suggested that Zipcar should offer their members bike trailers as an alternative to cars – which could probably handle many trips that people now use Zipcars for. No response.

  • Not to mention that the message in this campaign is largely wrong.

    If someone’s walking somewhere in NYC, it’s probably a short trip. So if “getting there” includes parking your zipcar (and sometimes even if not), then no, you often wouldn’t get there faster in a zipcar.

    And furthermore, the “car sharing beats car owning” theme would probably resonate MUCH more with New Yorkers than this cutesy (and unhealthy) stuff.

  • JK

    Zipcar has done a good job of making themselves synonymous with carshare in the U.S, but all car share is not Zipcar. First off, Zipcar is a business. Their goal is to make money. In some places this may mean getting existing car owners to sell their cars, in others, (I would suspect low car owning neighborhoods in NYC) they are probably creating more car trips by making car use easier. Unlike a public transit service, Zipcar cannot exist without making money, that means they have to go where the money is, not where car share has the greatest environmental benefit. In Manhattan,West Brooklyn etc Zipcar is trying to do two things with their marketing: increase demand by getting car-free transit owners to drive more, and differentiate themselves from regular rent-a-car. But really, the only difference between Zip and regular rent-a-car is convenience.

  • Doug

    The response to “You’d Get There Faster in a Zipcar,” should be “Actually, no.”

    It may be easier to do certain things with a Zipcar — a large grocery run, a trip to Ikea, drop off a big donation at Goodwill, for example — but it’s rarely faster to use a Zipcar to get to any of these places.

    What person leaves his apartment to go to, say, a Duane Reade and thinks, “Gee, it sure would be easier if instead of walking three blocks I had to make a reservation online, go to a garage, pick up a car, drive around, look for a parking spot, run my errand, and deal with traffic on my way back to return the car?

    Their message misses the mark by a wide margin. As a Zipcar member, I feel less enthused about their commitment to sensible transportation choices.

  • J:Lai

    I hear you, but does this really deserve to be a stand-alone article? You think zipcar’s choice in one marketing spot is enough of an issue to elevate it out of “today’s headlines”?

  • This is really odd considering Zipcar is also promoting the carfree lifestyle with their low-car diet campaign:

    And, in fact, in a few cities Zipcar even provided free transit cards and bike rental as part of their month-long carfree challenge. They’re then attempting to track how much more the participants walk and bike and how much less they drive.

    So it sounds like they need to work a little on consistent messaging.

  • I agree with Carfree Chicago. Zipcar is a great service and all studies point at a major reduction in car use among its members, but the messaging could use a thorough review.

    The company should also adopt a policy of only parking cars at lots that have pedestrian safety measures installed, like stop signs, ped bollards and speed bumps just before the sidewalk ribbon. The company should also provide sheltered bike racks at their lots. These types of small details would help their image.

  • Car Free Nation

    Judging from my experience, Zipcar has a business challenge in New York City. When we first went totally carfree, we used Zipcar a lot, but over time, we started choosing to buy things locally. It’s certainly cheaper to walk somewhere and pay a few extra dollars than to rent a car for a couple of hours. We also often walk one direction, and use a car service or cab for the other.
    Eventually, we only used Zipcar for long weekend trips, but we found the traditional rental cars to be competitively priced, and more reliable (the car is not always there for you with Zipcar). We now almost never use Zipcar.
    A business in which customers use the service less and less causes marketing people to search for stupid ways to sell the product.

  • Car Free, your point is perceptive. The company’s head marketing person says, “As a marketer the core challenge is always the same—to help drive revenue by increasing awareness of and demand for a company’s product or service.” There’s no allegiance there to any set of principles congruent with livable streets.

  • Gourd Jackson

    Well I need to get a rental three times in the next three months. I guess Zipcar won’t be my choice then.

  • Between these guys telling me I walk too slow and “cash for clunkers”, you’d think there was a major economic downturn affecting automobile usage or something.

  • Man on Foot

    Zipcar has played the “green” card since “day one” and ingratiated itself with the green community. It plays out as good word of mouth, plus free parking for some of their assets.

    Not the first time a company played the green card out of one hand, while playing a different game out of the other. Segway promoted itself as an alternative to cars (the more to get political support and bike lane access), while their web site promoted the device as an alternative to walking.

    In fact (if not by law) they are a car rental company. Zipcar members do not “share” anything. They pay $75 up front, plus (in NYC) at least $15 an hour to “share” the cars. If the car’s not there or defective, there’s not likely to be a substitute on site. Go over your original reservation and you’re charged a $50 penalty (they encourage you to book an extra hour, LOL). Plus if you have an accident, you’re “only” liable for $500. Did you know that at a NYS car rental (not Zipcar, because, of course, they’re not a car rental), you’re covered, by law, for 100%? So, unless you have an errand with a very short and predictable duration (like 3 hours), you’re probably better off renting.

    Zipcar (IMHO) is the automotive equivalent of the corner store that sells individual cigarettes, of the motel that charges by the hour, of the “payday” loan.

    The green community ought to be more careful who they make friends with.

  • Harris

    I can’t understand how this company makes money. I was a member for three years before I actually used the service. For short trips, mass transit or a car service is either cheaper or more convenient. For longer trips it’s cheaper to rent a car. I thought Zipcar might be a good weekend day trip option because in Brooklyn the rental places are closed on Sunday, so a one-day turns into a two-day rental. However, I ended up spending $135 for the day, even though i used a car with a special low rate. And it was very stressful to try to have the car returned at the time I guessed i would be back when I reserved it. Zipcar seems like a great thing to have around, but the reality is something else.

  • why do you feel that zipcar would give two cents out of what you want out of them? they are a company in the business of staying in business and their target market are people who ride subways and they will market themselves any way they want to.

    i hate cars as much as any non-car owning and driving bicyclist, but this post is pathetic. this is a car(hello!) rental agency, not some kind of socially and/or politically conscious collective.

  • john k

    i think you guys are taking this a little too seriously. it’s a marketing gimmick. it’s admittedly quirky and get’s people thinking about zipcar.

    what’s to hate? at the end of the day they do take cars off the streets.

  • brian k

    Many North American cities have local non-profit carsharing organizations with more sustainable mission statements than Zipcar.

    A good list of them is here:

  • I think Man on Foot has it the best. Not to stray off topic either and launch on the economics of it (which must be huge if General Electric Capital Corp is on board). The green sales pitch is, it takes cars off the road. Maybe, then it replaces them with sexier, fuel thrifty rides like Coopers and Scions that log many more miles…and which entice certain of us out of public transit and into zip rides with a guilt-free spin because it’s cool. But they don’t surcharge you if you live in Brooklyn and their hourly pricing gets consumers to think of car usage in hourly increments of using and not using the service. But were GECC to get behind a huge bikeshare project possibly with user ID cards that could work with either system….then they could green spin for real.

  • bc

    Man on Foot and Cochon are exactly right. I think feeling wronged by a business that makes money by putting people in cars is a bit naive. It’s difficult to fault them for being disingenuous, people frequently don’t research the companies they back carefully enough, if if was just a few well worded ads that made people think they were “green”, that’s not much to go on…

  • I’m a satisfied Zipcar customer. Yeah, it’s a car rental company. But it’s cheaper and more convenient than a traditional car rental company, and it enables my family to live in Brooklyn without a car (despite the best efforts of my elected officials to convince me to do otherwise). We use it almost exclusively to travel outside of New York City (though I have used it to haul stuff or to visit friends at night in areas not served well by transit — trips I would have used a car service for otherwise).

    Do I drive more since I’ve become a Zipcar member? Yes. Is traveling easier for me and my family? Also yes. I live in Brooklyn. Would my family have bought a car by now if it were not for Zipcar? Almost certainly yes.

    Obviously, the ad campaign we’re talking about here is nonsense. But the job of marketing is not to make sense; it’s to get attention. Woo hoo, it worked.

    I feel like a bit of a boob defending my car usage on Streetsblog. But, ultimately, we’ve decided that Zipcar is a useful tool for us. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we bike, sometimes we take a train or a bus, and sometimes, when it’s the best option for a particular trip, we drive a Zipcar.

    Man on Foot: Yeah, the “sharing” thing is just semantics. Regular rental car users “share” in the same way. The point is that you need fewer cars to serve the same number of people, as compared to car ownership.

    Harris: Zipcar doesn’t make money yet. They are planning to post a profit for the first time in the third quarter and to go public in 2010 ( Also, I find that for a 1-4 day trip, Zipcar is cheaper than a regular rental car.

    Brian K: Non-profit car-sharing for NYC would be great. It’s got a lot of catching up to do, however. Zipcar has 2000 cars in the NYC area.

    Peter M: Right — if I had a car I would drive a lot more often because so many of the costs are up front and the incremental cost of driving is minimal. That’s the opposite of Zipcar where it pays to minimize my driving.

  • Jen

    Of course Zipcar is out to make money. And part of how you make money is to market yourself a certain way. A significant part of the Zipcar pitch is that using their service is more eco-friendly than owning a car. To ridicule people for eco-friendly activities like walking is to contradict another plank of Zipcar’s marketing plan, and to risk insulting the people they are hoping to attract.

    No one is disputing that businesses are free to market themselves as they please. Bloggers are also free to call them out for hypocrisy, and potential customers are free to take their business elsewhere.

  • bc

    Steven, they are simply not cheaper. I have been a member for a long time, and on 2 occasions (in the 2 day range you are speaking of) recently was unable to get a car and had to go to the usual rent a car suspects and was shocked that they were not only cheaper, they were much much cheaper.

    I think people are taking this ad campaign a bit too seriously as “mocking pedestrians” I agree it’s stupid, but I think people taking this personally as an admonishment they are moving too slowly have kinda lost it.

  • That’s not been my experience — maybe because I usually rent on weekends? I also read an article about how car rental places are reducing their inventories, thus reducing the supply and jacking up the prices.

  • bc

    Here is a very, very quick search, spending no time. exact sime 2 day period, the higher rate is Zipcar

    Rental Rate $ 119.98
    1 day @ $ 59.99 $ 59.99
    1 day @ $ 59.99 $ 59.99
    Sub Total $ 119.98
    Taxes and Fees
    STATE TAX $ 23.84
    Free Mileage unlimited
    Total Charges $ 147.52

    Your Reservation:
    Thursday, Aug 6th, 4:30pm to Saturday, Aug 8th, 4:30pm
    (two days)

    580 Flatbush Av
    (Car Park Systems)

    Estimated Cost: $229.20
    Rate: $11 – 13/hr $77 – 115/day

  • This is not exactly a fair comparison: the Zipcar rate includes gas and some form of insurance.

  • bc

    as well as not including a membership fee and sizable late fee (most places have grace periods, I understand why Zip doesn’t, however…) I am fairly certain I can find much cheaper, and that most will be cheaper. Look, I am not arguing that they aren’t useful and convenient in certain situations and fill a niche, as I said, I am still a member, but people repeat the mantra that they are cheaper and it simply isn’t the case.

  • AlexB

    You are all so serious. It’s an ad-ver-tise-ment. I am a zipcar member. I use it twice a year to move furniture or take trips to places where there is no cheaper option. I was not swayed by a sign saying I was only going 4 mph. It’s a gim-mick for at-ten-tion. Get over it.

  • You people are all barking up the wrong tree. You should know that Personal Rapid Transit is the answer, not car sharing.

    Only kidding.


  • To even out the cost comparison given before, to rental car be sure to add a tank or 2 of gas at $40 per fill up and, if you didn’t own a car and had to buy supplemental insurance, another $15-20 per day = $70 for a total of $210 min. And to Zipcar add $7 for the monthly portion of the $75/year membership fee. Both companies have late charges, although Zipcar’s is much more substantial. If you’re lucky the Zipcar is just down the block from where you live where as the rental car place is probably a 5-10 blocks or a subway ride away + an hour or so to filling out the paperwork and declining all the add-ons they try to sell! By the time you factor this in they’re really remarkably close.

    I agree with other comments, this was a cheeky premise for a promotional and I think misses the mark from Zipcar’s best efforts, but it’s not like they’re suddenly the Devil incarnate. In Manhattan, if you don’t like Zipcar, you can choose from Connect by Hertz or the little guy, Mint Carsharing. (In case you’re wondering, no I don’t work for any carsharing company!)

  • bc

    I agree we’re all being way too serious, and maybe I’m just blabbing a bit too much because I’ve been a Zipcar member for a long time and have recently realized that they aren’t actually cheaper, but Dave, 2 things. First of all, I was only responding to the assertion that they were cheaper. Even if you are right, they are at best competitive. You are correct, they are far more convenient, which is why I still use them. However, you’re pricing is still off, in that rental car insurance is generally covered by credit card companies, not the case with Zipcar as they are not a rental agency, and their insurance that comes standard is a 500 dollar deductible, and not all companies have late fees. Perhaps in the contract and they could charge you, but I’ve yet to encounter one that doesn’t give a grace period. Zipcar has absolutely zero wiggle room, as well they shouldn’t since someone is most likely waiting for the car.

  • Jen

    Yeah everybody, lighten up. Who cares about double talk from a greenwashing company that encourages people to drive more often – and faster – through your pedestrian-dense city. It’s only advertising, which everyone knows has no effect on human behavior. Move on. Get a life. Get over it.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, it looks like a beautiful day to burn some rubber.


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