That Dodge Nitro sure looks like a sweet ride. Parked in an alley near Boston’s Symphony Hall, it’s just waiting to be boosted. My accomplice and I pull our winter caps low and sidle up to the white SUV. I pull out an electronic card, pass it along the windshield, and hear a reassuring click as the door locks release. We quickly duck into the seats, find the hidden ignition key, and start it up. No alarms. I step lightly on the gas and we pull away.
The owner of the car is fine with all this. She is Natalia Widulinski, a Northeastern University student from Stamford, Connecticut, and for $8 an hour she’s allowing complete strangers to borrow her car when she doesn’t need it. “I was looking for a way to pay for parking,” she says. She earns as much as $300 a month — more than her $175 parking bill.
She and I are both members of RelayRides, one of a handful of new car-sharing services backed by Silicon Valley investors who are betting on so-called “collaborative consumption.” That is the idea that people will share personal assets in order to cut the costs of ownership and be neighborly. Borrowers save money and reduce their environmental footprint.
Similar peer-to-peer services have been taking off in real estate and other industries. You can go online to share a vacation home, find temporary office space on Loose Cubes, or even rent someone’s spare bedroom for a night on AirBnB. But for now, peer-to-peer car sharing can best be described as an experiment. RelayRides, a two-year-old company that operates in Boston and San Francisco, currently offers access to a grand total of about 200 automobiles (there are 250 million passenger vehicles in the United States). Even so, industry observers say the availability of such services will lead some urban dwellers to give up their cars. Gartner analysts predict that within four years, 10 percent of the U.S. urban population will use some form of shared automobile instead of a personal one.
Car owners who join RelayRides have an door-lock override system installed that is activated by a radio-frequency card issued to members. RelayRides keeps 35 percent of the rental fee and handles all billing, payments, and insurance.
For a few hours of driving, peer-to-peer car-sharing services are cheaper than a standard daily rental. Peer-to-peer companies also don’t have to spend any capital buying a car fleet; that gives them an advantage over competitors such as ZipCar, which rents cars by the hour in cities including Boston and New York. Among the disadvantages, to judge from customer reviews on the company’s website, are cars that are dirty or in poor working order.
Some transportation experts think peer-to-peer car sharing could relieve pressure on parking spaces and other aspects of city infrastructure. It also appeals to environmentalists, because sharing cars that would otherwise sit idle most of the time could allow us to get by with fewer of them.