Novel car-sharing biz sprouting here
You may be wondering: What's this guy doing, cooking out on a grassy parking space downtown? No, he's not tail-gating before a Ravens game. It's a somewhat unusual come-on for a novel approach to car-sharing that's getting a tryout in Baltimore.
Relay Rides is the brainchild of Shelby Clark, pictured above. With a small but dedicated team, the long-haired Harvard graduate business student is signing up people in Charm City who want ready access to wheels from time to time. Nothing unusual about that, you say? Like Zipcar, right? Well, he's also rounding up car owners willing to rent out their vehicles when they're not using them. He wants to help the two groups find each other.
Clark, a Denver native, says he got the idea for "peer-to-peer" car-sharing after finding once that he had to slog two miles through wintry streets in Beantown to pick up the nearest Zipcar available on short notice. "I was biking through the snow and hating life,'' he recalls, "And, passing cars sitting on the side of the road, I was thinking how inefficent this is. 'These cars haven't been driven in weeks,' he says he thought to himself. 'Why can't I take one of these?'"
Not that he dislikes Zipcar. Clark says he's used the car-sharing service a lot since his car died in San Francisco a couple years ago. But he says he's learned the hard way you can't count on getting a convenient vehicle if you don't plan at least a couple days ahead.
"This idea makes a lot more sense - it's for the people and by the people,'' says the 27-year-old MBA student. The appeal for car owners? "Everybody could use a couple thousand dollars right now." And for someone wanting to start a business on limited capital, he says, it helps not to have to buy the vehicles you plan to rent out. "Since we don't have to pay for these cars, we can grow the system much much quicker," he notes.
If you're wondering what's in it for car owners, Clark says they'll be able to rent their vehicles out when they're not using them for something like $5 to $12 an hour, depending on the size and quality of the ride. Owners can set their own price and the times when their vehicles will be available to rent. Relay Rides will screen the driving records of those who want to rent cars, and insure the vehicles against any accidents, theft or damage, he explains.
Owners who sign up will have to have their vehicles outfitted with an electronic lock. Member renters can unlock the designated vehicle by waving a membership card with a computer chip in it that transmits an individualized ID code. For now, at least, owners also will need to be city dwellers who park their rides off-street in a fixed, publicly accessible spot, so renters can easily find them. Clark says once the system grows, it may branch out to handle vehicles parked on the street, using GPS trackers to find them, or even in the suburbs.
Clark has no prior experience in car rentals. Before heading to Harvard, he worked in business consulting out of college, then joined Kiva, a "microfinance" service making small loans to help poor entrepreneurs in developing countries. But he's enlisted as his chief operating officer for this new venture the operator of a car-sharing service in Portland, Ore. They recently hired the first Baltimore employee.
Why Baltimore? Clark says Boston is already fairly saturated with car-sharing, while Charm City seems to have untapped potential. He hopes to start the service once 25 vehicle owners have signed on and grow it from there. So far, after a few weeks of promotion - including staging faux tailgate parties - the company has 15 people signed up. Five of them aren't even from Baltimore, Clark says, but thought the idea was so neat they signed on anyway to urge its expansion to their cities.
Katie Martin was one of those hooked by the tailgate spoof. The 26-year-old says she owns a 2003 Oldsmobile Alero, but drives it only about once a week. She lives downtown and walks to her government job every day and says she's actually thought about getting rid of the car, since she uses it so infrequently. She keeps it to visit family out of the area on weekends or for the occasional spontaneous trip. But she hopes by renting it out during the week, she can recoup some of the $250 a month she figures she pays in parking and insurance to keep her car.
"The times when I really need it are few and far between," says Martin. And she's not that worried about renters trashing her wheels. "If they spill something in it, it's not a big deal. It's just a car."
For more on Relay Rides, go here. What do you think? Would you be interested in making a little extra money by renting out your car, or are you too attached to it? Can you bear not having it at the ready at all times?