Flexcar offers discounts up front, but fees apply

Portland State’s transit pass program offers enough free car usage time for a weekend drive to the beach and back ?” but there’s a catch.

When PSU students purchase a transit Flexpass from Transportation and Parking Services, they earn a $35 usage credit for the car-share company Flexcar. However, before they can use this credit to get from point A to point B, students must pay Flexcar $75 in membership and application fees.

Flexpass marketing materials tout the $35 Flexcar usage credit as one of the benefits of the $125 sticker, which students place on their OneCard ID to get unlimited three-zone Tri-Met access for an entire quarter.

The Flexpass program replaced offering discounted monthly Tri-met passes at PSU in fall of 2004. While more expensive up front, the Flexpass is cheaper than monthly passes over the long run, which now cost $72 for an all-zone pass.

However, Flexcar requires a $40 annual membership and a $35 application fee to join, and all drivers must have a credit or debit card and be at least 21 years of age. For many Flexpass holders old enough to use Flexcar, the $75 upfront payment may be too costly to make the Flexcar time worthwhile.

“I just take public transportation,” said junior Brian Gadus, “but if I was considering car-sharing, those fees would definitely stand in the way.”

Flexcar is a for-profit Seattle-based company with over 6,000 members in the Portland Metro area. The city provides Flexcar with free parking spots downtown, and the company also has dozens of cars in Northwest, the Lloyd district, close-in neighborhoods and in downtown Vancouver.

Members choose monthly from several available plans, including a flat rate of $9 an hour, or a variety of prepaid plans for frequent users that are cheaper. Flexcar’s rates include gas, insurance and roadside service in the event of an emergency.

Members go online or call to reserve a vehicle near them, in advance or on short notice, then access the vehicle via keycard and PIN, run their errands or make their trips out to the suburbs and bring the vehicle back to its assigned parking space.

Flexcar has several vehicle models, including hydrids, minivans and trucks, so members can choose the kind of vehicle that meets their needs for each trip. According to the company’s calculations, Flexcar is cheaper than car ownership for most people with access to public transit who do not need a car to get to work.

Flexcar currently partners with PSU to provide free membership to faculty and staff who commute by bus or bike, plus four hours of free use between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. The program is part of the university’s congestion reduction strategy. However, there is no student discount for membership, and no payment plan that would enable students to spread the cost of joining over several months.

Some PSU students have been able to put Flexcar to economical use. Junior Adas Lis splits the cost of the cheapest prepaid plan, $85 a month for 10 hours of daytime use, with his roommate, Billy Taylor.

“We use our daytime hours sparingly, usually just for emergencies.” Lis says. He and Taylor do the bulk of their driving in the middle of the night. Flexcar members who choose one of the prepaid plans also receive unlimited free access to the vehicles between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“We do most of our grocery shopping at night. We go to the 24-hour groceries to do our heavy shopping, things like flour or sugar. We get the things we need a car to transport. We actually end up saving money by driving out to WinCo.”

Lis and Taylor made good use of the free nighttime usage when they moved to a new apartment last year. They reserved a Flexcar truck for 11 p.m., and used it to haul all of their boxes and furniture before 7 a.m. the next morning.

Taylor was a member of Carsharing Portland before Flexcar took that company over in 2001. According to Lis, “because he was a preexisting member, he gets a free lifetime membership to Flexcar.”

Even without the specter of the $40 membership, Lis says, “It took me a long time to make the decision [to join].” He complains that the company is “becoming kind of corporate” and is sometimes slow to respond to problems, depending on which operator he gets.

“Hopefully, the rates will be getting cheaper because another company is coming in,” says Lis, referring to Boston-based car-sharing company Zipcar. While it has yet to set a date, Zipcar has announced plans to set up a Portland branch. In cities such as Boston and Washington, D.C., Zipcar makes university campuses major customers for its business.

According to Brodie Hylton, business development representative for Flexcar in Portland, students have many opportunities to earn free usage credit that makes the investment in membership worthwhile. “Students can combine the $35 transit pass credit with one of our other specials. For example, if the student is also a bicycle commuter, they can get the $25 bicycle commuter credit, as well.” However, students may not combine the transit pass credit with more than one new member special.

Flexcar also runs other specials that are not yet up on their web site. “In a few weeks, we’re going to be offering $75 in usage credit to all current members. All students would need to do is get the promotion code from someone who is already a member, and we have plenty of members on the PSU campus.”

Hylton says that Flexcar does not offer student discounts on membership. “There is a cost that Flexcar incurs to enroll a new driver. We have to do a driving record check, which costs money.” All members are automatically insured when driving Flexcar vehicles, and must have clean driving records. “We want to make sure that those who join will actually use the cars, because of the cost incurred. If membership were free, some people would join, but never use the service.”

“We are considering extending membership to people 18 and up,” says Hylton. “Potentially, in the future, we may consider partnering with PSU to market to students.”

Until then, Flexcar will continue to offer a Flexpass benefit that many students cannot afford to use.