It has always seemed to me as if saving money and saving the
environment were mutually exclusive activities. If you want to help preserve
the planet for future generations, you have to either buy organic or fair-trade
food for an extra dollar or two per pound, plant your own garden or buy locally
grown produce. And definitely stock up on spiral fluorescent light bulbs — don’t
laugh, apparently you save money on your energy bill. Still, it’s pretty
difficult to live an environmentally-sustainable lifestyle on a college
student’s budget.

But with car sharing, you can have the best of both worlds.
This concept, started in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s, and appearing in force
in the United States just 10 years ago, allows those who only need cars very
sporadically to not have to own one. While this is only practical in fairly
dense urban areas with lots of walkable streets and public transportation
options, Madison
fits the bill and more people should be taking advantage of the opportunity.

We all know the expenses that come with owning a car. The
expected costs of monthly payments, gasoline, insurance and parking can often
add up to more than your monthly rent. Add in the unexpected expenses of flat
tires, mid-highway breakdowns and accidental collisions that can make your
insurance premiums skyrocket, and you could be broke faster than you can say
“ramen.”

With gas prices that seem to only get higher, now is the
time for as many people as possible to break their addiction to cars. And Madison could definitely
use a little less traffic on the streets.

Community Car is a nonprofit organization in Madison
launched in 2003 that has placed energy-efficient cars in parking lots all over
the city for anyone who has signed up for the program to use. Personally, I
live near campus, so nearly everything I need is within walking or biking
distance. For most other destinations, like doctor’s appointments, I can take
the bus. But if I need to get groceries or go on a Target run, errands that are
very inconvenient to do via bus since you can only carry so many bags,
Community Car is the way to go.

Why is Community Car such a good deal you may ask? Because
of all the things you don’t have to worry about. The company pays for gas,
insurance, parking and cleaning. You simply sign up online for a car at a given
time and use your keycard to unlock the car when your time arrives. You pay for
every hour that you use the car and mileage basically doesn’t matter unless
you’re driving long distances. You generally pay somewhere between $7-10 per
hour, which is comparable to national rates of for-profit car sharing firms
like Zipcar. There are student discounts available as well, but
note that you can generally only sign up if your driving record is solid.

There are some annoying drawbacks to the Community Car
service, which are likely unavoidable. First, the cars aren’t always available
when and where you want them. But you can generally find at least a car or two
that are available near you when you want them. Further, your trips can often
take longer than you planned, yet you don’t have the convenience of bringing
the car back whenever you feel like it. Generally you can call the Community
Car hotline and extend your appointment unless there is someone scheduled right
after your allotted time.

I had a problem with Community Car service a few weeks ago;
some might even call it a mini-crisis. But the way it was handled by the staff
at Community Car proves my point about what a great service it is. I had gone
to Woodman’s to pick up some groceries. When I finished and put my groceries in
the car, I was unable to shift my Toyota Prius into reverse (this is done
electronically on that model rather than with a manual gear). While this was an
inconvenience in terms of time, all I had to do was wait for the tow-truck. I
don’t blame Community Car — cars inevitably break down from time to time. But I
was comforted by the fact that it wasn’t my responsibility to resolve the
problem as if it had been my own car that broke down.

Obviously this is never going to be an attractive service
for the kind of person who needs to commute to work every day. Since you pay
for the use of the car by time, it’s necessarily expensive if your car is going
to be sitting in place for hours. Still, college campuses and urban areas in
general have many residents who only need a car for occasional trips. If this
is you, consider ditching your car and getting signed up for Community Car.

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is
a senior majoring in political science and economics. He also has no personal
investment in Community Car.