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How revolutionary will this be? If car sharing is to have a national impact on congestion, it must surmount a basic paradox: everyone hates traffic and smog, but few people are willing to give up their cars. In the U.S., as the saying goes, you are what you drive. And a half-century of highway subsidies has only fueled the sense of entitlement. According to a poll on traffic by TIME, ABC News and the Washington Post, only 10% of those surveyed who have access to mass transit actually use it regularly. "There's a stigma to not owning a car," says Kim, the Seattle architect. "People say, 'Hey, you're wearing a nice jacket--can't you afford a car?'" Now car-sharing firms are out to prove that their communal approach offers its own attractions: freedom--and even convenience. As a Zipcar ad put it, "350 hours/year having sex. 420 looking for parking. What's wrong with this picture?" In Boston, New York and Washington, almost all of Zipcar's 32,000 customers are within a seven-minute walk of a company car. "Our members are savvy," says CEO Scott Griffith. "They don't need to own a car to enjoy mobility."
Convenience aside, car-sharing firms are betting that their growth will come from people looking to save money. Consumers, they hope, will figure out that they could save enough for an annual vacation in Hawaii if they just switched from owning to sharing. Or merely gave up that second or third car. The American Automobile Association estimates that it costs an average $703 a month to own a modest vehicle--what with payments, depreciation, insurance, maintenance and gasoline. Yet government surveys show that most cars are driven only about an hour a day. Those same 30 hours a month would cost less than $300 in a car-share program. Zipcar and Seattle-based Flexcar, the industry leaders, charge an annual membership fee of $25 to $50 and an hourly rate of $7.50 to $10, depending on the user's monthly driving plan (drive more, pay less). And that hourly charge includes insurance, parking, maintenance and fuel (a company credit card in the glove compartment is available for when you fill the tank). Traditional rental cars, by contrast, typically require more paperwork and are usually available only by the day, at fees that range from $25 to $150 but don't include insurance or gas. "It is a dollars-and-cents equation," says Flexcar CEO Lance Ayrault. "Do the math and ask yourself, 'Why do I own that thing?'"