Last week,Avis announced that it was buying Zipcar for $12.25 a share, a 49 percent premium over Zipcar’s price at the time. For Avis, it’s a bet that short-term car rentals — or car sharing, as Zipcar likes to call it — will continue to grow in cities worldwide. For cities, the deal points to an even broader trend: It’s a reminder that technological change, which favored suburbs throughout much of the 20th century, is now clearing away obstacles to a satisfying urban life and amplifying the benefits of urban density.
Zipcar allows the city dweller who needs a car only occasionally to get by easily without owning one. Like so many innovations, this approach to car rentals came out of urban interaction. In 1999, the company’s two founders, Robin Chase and Antje Danielson, were having coffee in Central Square’s Andala Cafe, when Danielson told Chase about a Berlin company that rented cars by the hour. Chase got excited about, as she later put it, “the idea of Zipcar as collaborative infrastructure that was collaboratively financed.” Scott Griffith, the company’s leader since 2003, is a passionate advocate not just of his company but also of urban life.