Los Angeles might expand use of Zipcars

On the traffic-clogged streets surrounding UCLA, Nina Viakhireva, a car-less art student from San Francisco, had learned to navigate the bus routes or rely on friends for rides. Her parents did not buy her a car, afraid Los Angeles traffic would be too dangerous and time-consuming.

Then the 21-year-old found the Zipcar program, a car sharing service that provides affordable transportation and gives her a new sense of freedom.

“I use it for the grocery store, to go to dinner or to the beach,” Viakhireva said. “It’s really made things accessible for me.”

Of course when she graduates in four months, she will no longer have a need for Zipcar.

“I’m buying my own car,” she said.

Los Angeles may never go from car-crazed to car-free, but the Zipcar pilot program recently launched by the city to encourage Angelenos to ditch their autos for “shared cars” is gaining speed, prompting some city leaders to envision expansion.

The idea, like carpooling or ride-sharing, isn’t expected to tear most Angelenos away from their beloved vehicles, but it could help reduce traffic congestion, exhaust and parking frustrations.

More than 100 people have signed up for the service since the city partnered in September with Massachusetts-based Zipcar to place a dozen shared cars around UCLA and USC. An additional 300 people already signed up with Zipcar elsewhere in the country have also used the pilot program’s cars.

The cars proved to be more popular than expected, hitting the 30% growth backers had expected after a year in just the first month.

“I was a little reluctant when I first heard about it,” said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose district includes the usually congested USC area. “But based on what we see from the pilot, it’s clearly been a success.”

Council members could formally consider an expansion in the fall.

Under the program, university students, faculty and members of the public pay fees starting at $8 an hour to drive the mix of hybrids, Mini Coopers and pickup trucks to run errands, explore the city and get to personal and business appointments. They then park the shared cars in reserved parking spots on city streets near the schools for the next driver.

Six new cars are being added to the fleet, two at UCLA and four at USC, where the service is slightly more popular. It had been in effect for a few years exclusively for university students and staff but opened to the public in the fall, when the city shifted cars to on-street parking.

A few kinks must be fixed before the idea is considered a total success. Some drivers have been ticketed or had their shared cars towed for parking outside designated Zipcar spaces; others compete with non-Zipcars who steal their spots. There also isn’t a local Zipcar representative available, so users rely solely on the Web or their phones to reserve cars and trouble-shoot problems.

Since starting in 1999, Zipcar has seen great growth at universities across the country.

And it’s also popular in compact, dense cities including Boston, New York and San Francisco.

In green-conscious states such as Oregon, Zipcars even come equipped with bicycle racks and free parking passes to forest parks.

The company says each Zipcar removes between 15 and 20 personally owned cars from the road. Customers say they drive 40% fewer miles, increase public transportation use nearly 20% and save more than $600 per month on transportation costs.

But Los Angeles’ sprawling nature presents a unique challenge for the company, said spokesman John Williams. Officials plan to keep a close eye on the USC-UCLA pilot program, then look to expand in other busy centers, perhaps near transportation hubs and train stops.

“We don’t want to invest in a strategy that won’t work,” Williams said.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is optimistic, given the early positive results.

“After turning this corner, we are now looking for ways to put car sharing in the fast lane to become a permanent reality here,” he said.