The Bus Stops Here: For People Who Share Cars

The Bus Stops Here is produced monthly by members of the Madison Area Bus Advocates.

“You love the bus but not for grocery shopping or special trips”

A valuable characteristic of many bus riders in Madison is that they drive cars as well as ride the bus, thereby having a good idea of how much time it can take to go someplace by car. Our transit system needs to be time-competitive with the car if it is to stay (or become) a viable option for many people. Having Bus Rapid Transit as an element of the overall system would help. So would “first-last mile strategies” that provide support for travel that cannot be directly met by transit. Car sharing is one such strategy, others being ride sharing – where someone else drives – and biking (treated separately).

Many occasional bus riders also drive their own cars, even if they only do so on special occasions. Since they also ride the bus, such car owning can cost less than average, but owners still have to pay such up-front costs as insurance, and registration, and they must have a parking space. Economists refer to those costs as “fixed costs.” Once those fixed costs have been paid, the additional (“marginal”) cost of driving can be minimal.

One alternative to direct ownership is to rent a car for the occasional special trip, otherwise living car-free. In this case, the fixed costs associated with car ownership are nil but the marginal cost of occasionally using a car can be somewhat high. Maybe less complicated or costly than actually owning a car, renting a car the traditional way can still be a headache both financially and strategically.

The typical scenario for renting a car in Madison is that cars must be rented by the day or set of days, even when you may only want the car for a few hours. Renting also typically requires going out to the airport to pick the car up and drop it back off. As public transit to the airport has been very limited (remember, the County pays for no transit service anywhere), getting to and from the airport can involve taxi rides, the cost of which need to be included into the cost of renting the car.

A second alternative to owning one’s car involves car sharing. On an informal basis, two or more people from different households can co-own and share use of the same car, an arrangement that can cause major problems for insurance agencies trying to figure out who and how much to charge.


(Thomas Yonash/Madison Commons)(Thomas Yonash/Madison Commons)


A more formalized car sharing arrangement can be traced back to 1948 and a housing cooperative in Zurich, Switzerland. Other experiments, are known to have occurred elsewhere in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. The oldest operation in the United States may date back to 1998 in Portland, Ore.

Formal car sharing is similar to renting in that any one car has multiple users. And in Wisconsin, cars have to be picked up and dropped off at set locations. But after that, they vary in detail. Madison was first introduced to car sharing in 2003 by way of a company called Community Car, a subsidiary of the Madison Environmental Group, LLC. Twenty-five people shared three cars. Members could use a car for as briefly as one hour or as long as three days. At its peak, it had 19 cars and 950 members (a ratio of 73 to 1).

People joined Community Car by paying $35. They could then use the car for an additional $8-$9 per hour.  That fee covered up to 150 miles of use, insurance, gas, maintenance (oil changes, car washes), repairs and 24-hour roadside assistance. UW students, faculty and staff got an even better deal as it cost them only $25 (vs. $35) and they also had a credit of $35. The main requirement was that they had to be at least 18 years old.

One reason UW students, faculty and staff received a somewhat better deal with Community Car is that the UW had partnered with the company as part of its program to encourage ‘transportation alternatives.’ That partnership ended during the 2011-2012 academic year however, as the UW decided to switch its partnership to the newer Zipcar car sharing company, a subsidiary of Avis. Unlike Community Car that operated in a single locality, Zipcar operated in cities all over the U.S., Canada and Europe. A membership from Madison can therefore be used in Boston or New York City.

The public may never know the details of the agreement, but the main thing we do know is that Zipcar bought out Community Car in 2015. Somewhat more expensive (the base membership is $70 instead of $35) it operates pretty much the same way by letting people use the car for as little as one hour and its $8-$10/hour fee covers gas, insurance and up to 180 miles a day.

It is important to note that though by far the best known, the type of car sharing illustrated by Zipcar is only one of two types of car sharing in Madison. The other type is called “peer-to-peer” in which someone rents and someone else rents out their own personal car. Renting a car can be less expensive while renting out one’s car can help pay its overall cost. The company coordinating the activity in Madison is called Turo. This type of carsharing is far less developed than the better-known type, and some legalities surrounding it appear unsettled.

In case people wonder about a car sharing company called Car2go that is popular in places such as Minnesota, it is not legal in Wisconsin. It allows you to drop the car off anywhere, not necessarily at a specified drop-off point. A clever way to externalize the true cost of supposedly “free” parking, it is taking a step backward. Parking is not free.