Hybrid rental car club hOurCar will provide convenience for some

Nathan Hall

A unique, environmentally friendly automobile program coming to the Twin Cities will let drivers rent cars by the hour.

But most University undergraduate students need not apply.

Members of the hOurCar club can rent hybrid electric sedans by reserving them by phone or online and picking them up from locations in their neighborhoods.

Fifteen or more residents must sign up before a neighborhood can be considered, and members are billed at the end of the month for time used and mileage.

However, most rental car companies forbid drivers under 25 from renting a vehicle for any length of time, citing insurance reasons.

“With the exception of Michigan and New York, Hertz rents to individuals 25 years and older,” said Paula Stifter, public affairs manager for Hertz, in a prepared statement.

Stifter cited a “well-known and documented” disproportionate amount of accidents by drivers under 25 and said “there are not any practical ways to make selective exceptions.”

In New York, Hertz charges drivers under 25 an extra $51 per day. In Michigan, 18- to 21-year-old Hertz customers pay $41 extra, while the company charges 22- to 24-year-olds $17 more per day.

“The number 25 is arbitrary; we point it towards there in order to keep costs down,” said Andy Morse, a self-employed insurance agent from Anoka. “We also take into account factors like the amount of traffic you’re in or how far the distances of the trips are. Ö Insuring youthful drivers increases prices to the point of putting it out of most people’s price range.”

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has abandoned its own car-sharing proposal. However, MnDOT has enlisted the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to direct demographic and marketing research for the hOurCar initiative.

The St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium launched the nonprofit hOurCar using a $750,000 grant from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, a state-funded agency, for initial recruiting, marketing and business planning.

“This idea is very scary to insurance companies,” said Mary Morse, the consortium’s executive director. “However, we do a thorough background check, they have to sign a contract and they can’t drop it off anywhere other than at their assigned neighborhood lot or garage. Prospective members have to put down a large damage deposit and are also required to go through member orientation as well.”

“We should be good to go late this fall, January 2004 at the latest,” said Jennifer Wicklund, hOurCar’s program manager. “We’re at a preliminary stage right now and a lot depends on funding, so we’re looking to other sources than the state.”

However, Morse said, most insurance companies want drivers with at least seven years’ experience.

“Many people are calling about the fact that young people are being excluded from this program,” Wicklund said. “They say that studies show that they shape their mindset to this sort of thing, so it doesn’t make sense to exclude them.”

HOurCar is solely responsible for leasing, maintaining and insuring the vehicles. Similar programs are already in place in other cities, such as Seattle’s Flexcar, New York’s Zipcar and San Francisco’s City CarShare.

Wicklund said the energy consortium is also interested in other alternative forms of transportation, including hydrogen fuel-cell cars and human-powered tricycles that some people already use near campus.

Wicklund said she disagrees with comparisons to Minneapolis’ ill-fated Yellow Bike Coalition of 1995.

“For one, it’s a lot easier to steal a bike than it is a car,” Wicklund said.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]