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Zipcar rolls out one-way service with guaranteed parking

Zipcar Inc., the Boston-based car-sharing service that lets members rent cars by the hour, is testing a service that will give members the option of taking one-way trips in Honda Fit subcompacts.

Currently, members must return a Zipcar to the location from where they started their trips. In other words, a member who rents a Zipcar in Cambridge must return it to Cambridge. The Zipcar One-Way program, in contrast, envisions members picking up a Zipcar at the airport and dropping it off downtown, with a guaranteed parking space at their destination, said Zipcar, a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group Inc.

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Zipcar, which promotes car-sharing as alternative to car ownership, has been rolling out its One-Way service in Greater Boston. By September, the hope is that it will be available to all local members, said Zipcar president Kaye Ceille, who added that the program’s pricing and locations are still being worked out.

In Greater Boston, Zipcar operates a fleet of about 1,100 vehicles at 571 locations. The plan is to augment that local fleet with a few hundred Honda Fits set aside exclusively for the One-Way service, along with additional parking spaces.

“The logistical hassles of one-way car sharing are not to be underestimated,” said Chris Brown, executive editor of Auto Rental News.

By guaranteeing a parking space, Zipcar looks to limit the possibility that too many vehicles end up at a single location at the same time. If a space is unavailable, a member can’t book a trip to that location.

One company in the one-way car-sharing space is Car2Go, a subsidiary of automotive giant Daimler AG. According to its website, Car2Go provides car-sharing services in European and North American cities, including San Diego, Seattle, and Austin, Texas. 

Ceille sees strong demand among existing Zipcar members for one-way service.

“Our One-Way service blends the best of Zipcar –-- guaranteed parking and advance reservations --- with the best of the one-way model --- the spontaneity and freedom to leave a car in a different location,” she said.

Under the current Zipcar model, members can reserve a round-trip vehicle far in advance. The minimum rental period is one hour, and rates vary depending on which type of vehicle is reserved. (The Zipcar fleet includes 30 makes and models.) The hourly rate is on top of an annual membership fee, which is $60 if paid all at once.

One-Way vehicles, in contrast, can be reserved only 30 minutes in advance, and they can be rented in half-hour intervals. In theory, the One-Way Honda Fits will be competing with taxis, public transportation, and bike-sharing programs.

The One-Way service’s fee structure will be partly influenced by “what the market will bear,” Ceille said.

Frost & Sullivan, a US-based market research and growth strategy firm, expects one-way car-sharing to gain in popularity.

By the end of 2015, nearly 3 million North American consumers are expected to be members of a car-sharing service, and that 8 percent of that total will have availed themselves of a one-way ride, said Vishwas Shankar, a senior consultant with the automotive and transportation practice at Frost & Sullivan.

By the end of 2020, there will be nearly 8.4 million North American consumers who are expected to be members of a car-sharing service, and close to 20 percent of them are expected to have taken a one-way car-sharing ride, Shankar said.   

With a global fleet of more than 10,000 vehicles, Zipcar currently has about 860,000 members in 27 metropolitan markets.

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.
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