AutoblogGreen Q&A: Tobia Ciottone of Zipcar Chicago

On our latest podcast, AutoblogGreen had the opportunity to speak with Tobia Ciottone of Zipcar Chicago. As always, we make our podcast interviews available as a transcript so if you haven't listened or want to link to a particular quote, here's your chance. To listen to all our podcasts, click here.

: All right. I'm speaking today with Tobia Ciottone. He is the regional marketing manager for Zipcar Chicago. Our regular readers'll be fairly familiar with Zipcar and car sharing, but Toby, I'd like to welcome you to the Autoblog Green Podcast and what can you tell us about Zipcar?

TC: Well, thanks for having me, Sebastian. I really appreciate you having me on the show. Again, my name's Tobia Ciottone and I'm with Zipcar here in Chicago and if you haven't heard about car sharing, car sharing is basically an alternative to car ownership in a city. We operate in cities that have public transportation available. We operate in cities that generally are densely populated. So Zipcar is really for someone who needs a car sometimes. Someone who can get around, probably get to work, get to most places that they need to go without a car, but sometimes if you need to go shopping, you need to go out to the suburbs, you need to go on a quick business trip, sometimes you need a car and car sharing and Zipcar is a great way to have that convenience without having the cost of owning a car. So, basically the way it works, I'll give you Chicago as an example, we've got over 200 cars parked all over the City of Chicago. Any one of our members, and it is a member-based service, can go online and reserve any one of those cars for a period of one hour up to a period of three days, and that member pays for the car only for the time that they're using it. They don't have to go to an agency to pick up the car, they don't have to even speak to a human being most of the time. It's a 24-hour automated service. Gas is included. Insurance is included in the hourly cost and the daily cost, and it's extremely convenient, 24-hour access, and we have over 20 different makes and models for our members to choose from. So it's a great – great way to have that convenience without having the burden of monthly payments, you know, licensing fees, having to pay for gas. That's, in essence, is what car sharing's all about.

The Q&A continues after the jump.

ABG: And you're obviously familiar with the Chicago market. I believe that aside from Chicago, you have cars in San Francisco, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Toronto, Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill, New York and New Jersey, and Rochester, New Jersey, a couple cities in Massachusetts, the DC area, and across the pond over in London, and –

TC: Right, and don't forgot Boston, where we – where we launched.

ABG: Mm-hm. And also just some new announcements of new spots in Brooklyn, obviously it's in New York City, but some more diversification in where the cars are available there. Did I miss any there?

TC: I don't think you did, and every one of our users, every one of our members can actually use any of the cars in any of our markets. So as a Chicago member, I can log onto the site right now and reserve a car in Vancouver or New York or San Francisco just as easily as I could reserve a car here in Chicago.

ABG: Now that – that I didn't know. That's something that I – somehow escaped my awareness –

TC: – Well, yeah. It's a huge – it's a huge benefit.

ABG: Yeah, like the car rental on vacation.

TC: Exactly. Or business trips. They're a big one. You know, if you're going to New York City, if you know you can, you know, head into the city and then jump into a Zipcar and go to your meeting and then bring that Zipcar back and then head back to the airport and it's huge for many people. So that's – for some people that's the only reason they sign up. For that benefit. Saves businesses a lot of money. We actually have a – what we call a Z to B program for businesses, specifically designed for people that are using it for businesses purposes where we offer a special 12hour rate rather than just the hourly and just the daily rate. We offer a 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. discounted rate, which is actually lower than the daily 24hour rate. So we try to cater to as many people as we possibly can.

ABG: Mm-hm. And it seems to be fairly popular way to go. Obviously there are regular announcements of expansions that we write about in AutoblogGreen and just to be fair, you know, there are other car-sharing services available. Don't want our listeners to think, you know, we're only aware of Zipcar, but I believe that you are the largest car sharing company in the world. Correct?

TC: That is correct.

ABG: And aside from the cities in America, London, where else might any sort of expansion be taking place in the future?

TC: Well, we haven't really announced or even discussed where we're gonna go after our most recent launch, which was Vancouver. Mainly we are going to expand into cities that, again, have a pretty solid infrastructure of public transportation, have a very dense or dense-ish urban base, and have a population of people that need a car sometimes, but don't necessarily have to have a car to get around.

ABG: Mm-hm. So those are some of the infrastructure and personal use requirements. Is there any sort of like smallest city size that Zipcar has where it'll start thinking about possibly moving into a city?

TC: Yeah, it's – again, it's not really the size that's the issue. It's more usability. So if we see an area that makes sense, you know, using those factors that I just discussed, then it would make sense. We don't say, you know, absolutely not, we're not going to go into a city under X, Y, Z, and you know if – if we can see it making sense for that community, then it's considered.

ABG: Yeah. And from what I understand – I've never used the system myself, but there may be five cars parked in one area, different models, different types, small cars, large cars, depending on what the people need, if they need to move furniture or just run to the store. Is that pretty much how it works? In most –

TC: Yeah. There's – there are different locations, like I said, all over the city. The number of cars there can range from anywhere to two cars all the way up to, you know, 15 cars depending on – depending on how popular that particular area is, and we do our best to put in vehicles that will give a variety of different uses. So, you know, just as you described. You've got – we'll put as many, you know, smaller vehicles, economy vehicles, larger vehicles so you can move stuff. We try to – we try to mix it up as much as we can to allow access to as many people as possible.

ABG: Have you noticed that any particular type of car, any particular model, is the most popular for people to rent? Like are they using it mostly to move larger objects if they live in a city, but need to move a sofa or something like that?

TC: Yeah. That happens and it – it's not consistent across the board. You know, if you look – if you look in one neighborhood you'll see that the Volvo S40 is really popular because it – it's a nicer car and, you know, has a classier feel to it. You can see in another neighborhood that the pickup truck will be the most popular consistently. So the popularity is consistent, but not consistent across the board. It's really broken out by region.

ABG: Yeah. Does – do Zipcar users pay the same whether they take the Volvo or the pickup?

TC: In those two instances, yes. There are three different tiers of vehicle. Our standard tier here in Chicago starts at about $9.00 an hour on the occasional driver program. If you commit to a $250-a-month extra-value plan that price can start at low as $7.75 an hour, but most people start on the occasional driver program and that's $9 an hour. The second tier, which is, you know, larger, more utility vehicles and some of the nicer vehicles like the Volvo S40, the Tacoma, Toyota Tacoma pickup, and the Ford Escape SUV, the Mini Cooper, for example, those fall into the – the better category, you know, the nicer category, and those are $10 an hour. Then you go up to the premium, the sportier cars. That would be your BMW 325, your BMW 328, your Mustang convertible, your Mini convertible. Those are going to be about $12 an hour. So even when you're up in the upper tier, it's still very reasonable for what you're getting.

ABG: The gas is included in the price of the rental. Does – do you have any plans or is there – has there been any thought given to if you had a more fuel-efficient car then the customer would be paying less because the car uses less gas?

TC: No, we don't really work the pricing plans that way. We – it would be extremely difficult for us to base an hourly pricing plan on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. All of the vehicles are very fuel efficient because all of the vehicles are fairly brand new. I mean, all the ones here in Chicago are new, and the all the ones elsewhere in the Zipcar fleet are close to new. So the vehicles are all fairly efficient to begin with.

ABG: And, you know, as the – one of the reasons that we write about Zipcar and car sharing so much is that overall, you know, if you've got 20 people or so using one car or whatever your number is, that's much more efficient than 20 people having their own cars. So –

TC: Exactly. And I think the number you're going for was the statistic that every Zipcar that goes on the road takes 20 personally vehicles – or personally-owned vehicles, rather, off the road. And the way we come to that number is by surveying our members. We find that around 40 percent of people that join Zipcar either end up selling their car or donating their car to charity or choosing not to purchase a car. Where they were gonna to buy a car because they needed that car sometimes, they no longer have to purchase that car. That's where we come up with that number and it's a pretty powerful number when you think about the amount of cars that are on the road that really don't need to be there.

ABG: I think there's a lot of cities thinking of a lot of ways to, you know, reduce the amount of cars. London with its congestion charge and New York thinking about similar things. Traffic in any city is a hassle for anyone who's gotta drive there as anyone who's driven in a place like New York knows, but –

TC: – No doubt –

ABG: – I'm greatly in favor of things like car sharing and I think Zipcar seems to be doing a good job. I'd like to wish you guys good luck in the future and thanks for coming and speaking with AutoblogGreen.

TC: Of course. Thank you very much for having me.

ABG: All right. Talk to you later, Toby.

TC: Take care. Bye-bye.

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