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Zipcar confronts surge in interest after lockdowns eased

Boston car-sharing service has struggled to keep up with demand during the pandemic

Zipcar president Tracey Zhen has raced to keep up with demand. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2017)Suzanne Kreiter

Its rivals are retrenching. Many city dwellers remain leery of public transit. This should be Zipcar’s time to shine.

Yes, the Boston car-sharing service saw a surge in demand as lockdowns eased and cooped-up members hit the road. One big catch: The Avis Budget Group subsidiary has struggled to keep up.

During the past few months, many US customers booked cars days in advance, only to find them unavailable when it was time to drive. The unhappy members then called Zipcar customer service; many ended up on hold, often for a half-hour or more.

Zipcar president Tracey Zhen penned an apology, and distributed it via e-mail to members on July 11 and through the company’s social media channels on July 16. She blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the company to pare back the number of cars in service. Judging from the 500-plus comments the post generated on Facebook, many members were not quick to forgive.

In an interview, Zhen explained what went wrong, and how the company is racing to make it right.


When COVID hit in March, Zhen said, Zipcar trimmed its fleet extensively, moving many cars out of expensive parking spots, as demand dropped amid widespread shutdowns. The game plan: to take a conservative approach, to survive the pandemic. It was critical to keep going, she said, to support Zipcar’s members. Meanwhile, a few rivals simply got out of the business.

Starting in mid-May, requests for cars came in at a much faster pace than Zipcar had expected. For example, in New York City, demand rose 70 percent in June compared to the same month in 2019. The company’s often-touted fleet management system fell short, leading to more missing cars and backups with customer service.

To address the situation, Zipcar increased its third-party customer service staffing by 70 percent and added more than 800 cars to its North American fleet. The company now has 10,000-plus cars on the street, including about 1,000 in the Boston area — more than it had before the pandemic. The average wait time for customer service, a spokeswoman said, dropped by 45 percent in the past four weeks as a result.


The hitches were essentially due to demand coming back so quickly, Zhen said, a problem she described as “very solvable.” She said she hoped customer service would be restored to its prepandemic levels later this month.

So, are members heading for the exit ramp? Zhen said Zipcar hasn’t seen a correlation between the customer service issues and cancellations yet.

Zipcar rents cars out by the hour, but the company depends on members to return them to their parking spots on time or be fined. If there aren’t enough cars to go around, a few late cars can cause an unfortunate ripple effect.

Joanne Kay, a San Francisco resident who doesn’t own a car, found this out the hard way. She works for a health care nonprofit, but also is a makeup artist on the side. She said she booked a Zipcar for a 24-hour shift, for two makeup jobs on Aug. 1, but the car was missing when she showed up. She had a hard time getting through to customer service, and ended up securing a ride with a Lyft driver instead. A Zipcar representative did secure a car for her for the second job, but it was much further away from her home. After that experience, Kay said she’s done with Zipcar.


Another COVID complication: keeping the cars clean. Zhen said Zipcar sanitizes its cars at least weekly, with antimicrobial and antiviral products, but not typically after every driver. That means members often bring their own supplies to wipe down the cars. Craig Carlson, a Boston transportation consultant, said many people might be reluctant nowadays to hop behind the wheel within hours after a stranger sat in the same seat. Cleanliness, he said, becomes even more important to the company’s image during a pandemic.

To Chicago resident Melissa Toops, the situation feels safer than Uber, but she still is not a fan of the process. She brings her own Clorox wipes, and keeps the windows rolled down. Toops, an architect, had to attend an important meeting virtually last week because the Zipcar she reserved ended up not being available. She said she is sticking with Zipcar, though, in large part because there are few alternatives other than buying a car.

Car-sharing options seem to be shrinking these days. Daimler and BMW pulled Share Now, formerly Car2Go, out of North America at the end of February. Bloomberg reported in March that a struggling Getaround was up for sale. General Motors confirmed in April that it was shutting down its Maven venture. And Enterprise suspended most of its remaining car-sharing operations in the United States. (The pandemic was also hard on Zipcar at first: The company, which now employs about 400 people, initially trimmed an estimated 25 percent of its staff.)


But one big competitor still looms: car ownership. Just ask once-loyal Zipcar member Jennifer Heettner. She said she bought a car as she decamped to Maine for the summer with her husband, from their home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Before experiencing service issues in the spring, Heettner said they used to rely on Zipcar; they won’t do so after they return to New York next month.

Zhen, meanwhile, remains bullish on car-sharing. She is still plotting the road map to navigate Zipcar through the pandemic. Zipcar aims to address an important need: convenient, affordable access to transportation in urban areas. That need, Zhen said, will still exist, long after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.