Several weeks ago, as I was returning on highway 99 to my office from a client meeting in downtown Seattle, I was passed by car emblazoned with the “Zipcar” logo. For those of you unfamiliar with the moniker (as I was), Zipcar is a Cambridge, MA-based company providing vehicles on a communal pay-per-use basis in urban centers across the country, and abroad. Though not the only such company, they are the world’s largest. I was unfamiliar with Zipcar because I had not been aware they recently acquired Seattle’s very popular homegrown version, FlexCar.
It’s a simple business model inspired by a similar one the founders experienced during a trip to Berlin, Germany, in the late nineties. For a per-use fee, drivers may collect a vehicle conveniently located in assigned parking lots throughout the city. They need only to go on-line, enroll in a plan appropriate to their intended use, secure a keycard, make a reservation and walk to the nearest location. When done, the car is returned to its space, ready for the next user. As one might expect, the vehicles are typically economy-based in size and model. Zipcar’s local fleet includes Subaru Imprezas, Honda Civic-Hybrids, Minis, etc.
After taking a moment to register what I had seen, a light bulb went on. If a Zipcar is the same thing as a Flexcar, are any agents using them? If not, why not? Is there a real estate-focused business model? Will brokerages and their owners see the benefit of embracing the model and promote its usage amongst their agents? Whether touring to preview properties with colleagues, showing homes to clients or simply running errands, I’m willing to bet we spend more time in our vehicles as an industry than most. I can only imagine the carbon footprint output of over two million agents nationwide. Imagine if just one percent adopted shared vehicle usage.
Being entrepreneurial in both spirit and practice, after returning to the office, I immediately jumped on-line to research the company. I also called a good friend of mine, an attorney, car enthusiast and very green-thinking individual to run my whirling ideas past him. If we could create and fund a company whose business it is to provide shared-use vehicles to sales professionals such as real estate agents, how cool would that be? He agreed.
After determining who the founders of Zipcar were, I reached out to one, Robin Chase. No longer with the company, Robin now heads a technology-in-transportation consulting firm, Meadow Networks. Before contacting her, I conducted a little more research. There is no detailed data readily available regarding the percentage of urban-centered vs. rurally located agents across the country. However, I can surmise that, with a total population of approximately forty thousand licensees in the Washington State, roughly fifty percent live in the western urban corridor ranging from Tacoma in the south through the Seattle/Bellevue metropolitan area to Everett in the north. Ours is not a densely populated region relative to some eastern seaboard cities. Boston, for example, shares a similar population, but with twice the urban density.
When I contacted Robin to share my thinking, I was envisioning an entirely new entity. In speaking with her, it became evident the easiest and quickest path to achieving my goal of encouraging more agents to use communal vehicles, was to promote existing channels and business models, especially as Robin had already stated that, to her knowledge, there were agents using Zipcars in Boston. She connected me to Zipcar’s corporate headquarters and a marketing contact who, in turn, put me in touch with the Seattle office. I have since enjoyed several conversations with its business development manager.
There remain several obstacles to overcome. We agents need flexibility and instant access to our vehicles. Furthermore, we’re a flashy, materialistic bunch. Drive onto any brokerage’s parking lot and you’re likely to see more than a fair share of Japanese, European and U.S. built luxury vehicles. Of course, burly, gas-guzzling SUVs abound. This isn’t to say there are no environmentally sensitive agents out there. To the contrary, Toyota’s Prius and other hybrids are very popular, (I can see a couple in our lot), and I’m willing to bet Chevy’s new Tahoe hybrid will be an attractive option, too. I know of one agent in the Bellevue area who drives a Smart Car. Still, we are resistant to change, especially if it requires personal sacrifice or inconvenience. Furthermore, it has to pencil out. There must by an obvious return-on-investment.
The challenge then, is to educate drivers to shed personal vehicles in exchange for the shared-use model. Can it work? Why not? Imagine the positive environmental impact of transitioning one, two, five or ten percent of sales professional usage, whether real estate or other, to community driving. When I tour with colleagues, we often squeeze five into a vehicle. Why not make it the norm rather than exception? If cars were readily and consistently available (the model would fail immediately, were an agent to show up to find an empty space where there was supposed to be a car), dependably clean, economical yet roomy enough to address the concern of client comfort, even luxurious, wouldn’t that be a healthy, progressive alternative? Imagine the good will and positive impact created by pulling up to one’s client’s door in a shared-use vehicle – Agent “X”, leading the fight against global warming, one client at a time. The benefit to new agents entering into the business in major metropolitan area could be as simple as not having to race out and purchase that new Lexus for appearances sake.
Though some may disagree, consensus amongst scientists and most governments of industrialized nations is that global warming is upon us, necessitating a reduction in our carbon footprint output. It’s no secret gas is at an all time high. Because so many of us drive luxury vehicles, premium grade adds an extra layer of cost. Can individuals make an impact? Certainly! We recycle. We compost. We buy low energy light bulbs. We vanpool. We build and market Green Built homes. Name me an industry in this country with over two million individual contractors, small business persons, spending as much time in their cars as we do.
Rather than endeavoring to create a new business, I’m opting to support the existing industry including Zipcar and all its competitors. I think we’re a few years out from realizing this as a ubiquitous mode of transportation. In the meantime, consider my voice one of evangelism. Tell me what you think.