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October 7, 2009

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?  

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:00 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Air Pollution, Going Green, News, Products, Urban Issues


What a GREAT idea - I recently sold my car because I rarely use it, but had this been around I would have kept it and earned some cash! *sigh*

I love this idea! I used to own a car but sold it because I couldn't justify the cost with how little I used it. It would be great to have funds generated from Relay Rides to help with the cost of a car in the city!

Eliminate the middle man, high costs and headaches. Great idea. I believe this service could greatly benefit both the congested East Coast and car saturated West Coast.

i think this is a fantastic brother lives in boston and uses his car once a week- this could bring a lot of efficiency to those types of situations...i'm definitely pulling for it!

it'll be very interesting to see how willing owners will be to rent out cars and see what kind of cars this would have. I doubt anyone with a car that's anywhere close to new or nice would be willing to let a stranger drive their car.

Sounds like a great idea. I would be willing to sign up, but for the obvious legal issues and liability surrounding the project. I assume those issues are being addressed and look forward to learning more.

What a great idea. I know people who use ZIP cars and always thought that was convenient, but the idea of being able to "rent" out your own car to help pay your insurance etc, is very appealing. I checked out their website, looks like they have a handle on the insurance issue.

I'd be interested in being a renter, I'm a current zipcar user (and it's a total pain that they only have them around Hopkins). But I'm not sure I understand how this solves the zipcar problem of having to schedule days in advance. I guess you'd have to get a lot more cars in the system. If you can do that, sounds awesome. And either way, it would be good to have more car-sharing in Baltimore.

This sounds like a great idea, why wait for Zipcar (and Altcar to a lesser extent) to get penetration into the city? Using existing resources, using them more efficiently than they are currently be used, and making money from it is a great strategy. I might consider using my next car in this fashion, as I plan on biking to work as my primary means of commuting. Making some spare cash off of a car that I barely use would be amazing!

Wow, everyone wants to get into the car rental business! I like the spirit of this idea and I am biased since I work in car rental, but one big issue I see is damage to the vehicle and primary liability. Car rental is a risk management business, and I;m not sure most people realize how much exposure there is when they let someone else drive their vehicle. In MD, the owner of the vehicle is liable for any damage to people or object done by the driver, so are all these folks ready to step up and pay for the inevitable accidents that occur when their cars are rented? State limits in MD are 20/40/15 and your personal car insuranmce policy might be voided if your carrier finds out the accident occured while you were renting your vehicle. With no one there to check the car in when its returned, who is going to collect for dents and dings or the ripped up upholstry or mashed in dog hair. You would be surprised what people do in and to rental cars. Just some thoughts, it's an interesting idea though.

Jason's point is interesting -- I am curious to know how big of a problem vehicle damage really was at your car rental company.

Zipcar has the same problem, though, and they seem to manage it pretty well. If your customers are responsible to return the vehicle on time for the next rental, refill the gas, keep it clean, and everything else the company would normally do, you do have to make sure that the members of your service are responsible. But insomuch as customers are part of a local community and their identity is visible to owners of the vehicles, I think you can mitigate that. I agree that I might beat the hell out of a car I get from Avis, but if I knew it was by neighbor's car and that they know I'm renting it, that is different story.

Car sharing is contagious. Here's a good piece about the pros and cons:

I think here in the Midwest, hit hard by the downturn in the economy, we will use the service too! Many families like mine own 3 or 4 cars. I have a perfectly good 2002 Chrysler Voyager Minivan that I can't bear to get rid of now that it's all paid for-- plus we need the hauling capability every now and then. Hope this comes to Indianapolis area soon. Colleges campuses would a great rental pool also since you can rent only for the time you need the ride.

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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