My first date with Zipcar: Jitters in Kalamazoo

When I sold my car close to two years ago, it was more than a financial choice -- it was a lifestyle choice. Kalamazoo is just big enough, or maybe, just small enough, that if the transit system cannot get you to your destination, you might be able to walk, bike, or find a ride.

What I really wanted as part of that lifestyle was not a car -- but occasional access to one. I didn’t want the responsibility of owning a car and the costs that go with maintaining it, including insurance and gas. Without access to a driveway or garage after a recent move, even parking would be an issue. A parking space would run an extra $120 every year. If I could access a car whenever I needed one, however, I could budget for errands and trips out of local transit range -- but Kalamazoo doesn't have quite the sharing economy infrastructure that Silicon Valley does, so where's one to start?

I've been waiting for car sharing to make its way to Kalamazoo since hearing about it years ago. That wish finally came true when Zipcar rolled into town this October. For the uninitiated, Zipcar offers car rentals from one's own community, with standardized rules and protection for both sides of the exchange.

One of the rules, for example, is that the gas tank has to have a minimum of one-quarter tank available for the next driver. The difference with this example to a rental is that the price includes the gas, since there is a shared credit card left in the vehicle that is specifically for filling the tank, which makes the rental much easier to budget around. Insurance is also included, along with a separate monthly or yearly payment to be covered for full liability. With my own car, I was paying an average of $100 a month for insurance. To get the full coverage for driving a Zipcar, I paid less than that for a year!

I was so excited when I was pointed to the article about Zipcars in Kalamazoo that I couldn’t wait to have a reason to reserve one.

As soon as I saw the Zipcar announcement, I couldn't want to find an excuse to reserve one. On signing up, emails and messages started coming my way -- and one in particular struck me as funny, calling me out for "first date jitters."

The email: "Your first Ziptrip is kinda like a first date. You're excited. You're nervous. You hope your breath smells okay. Of course, there's always that getting-to-know-you period. To keep the awkwardness to a minimum, follow the Ziptips down below."

Funny how accurate this description was. I was as nervous as I was excited. After our first date, I'm still in that "getting to know you" period, as I discover more about how Zipcar works.

The first reservation was made for Wednesday, Nov. 4. I wanted to attend a social of the West Michigan Makers at Axis Lab in Grand Rapids, which was about an hour north. I reserved the 6 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. time because there was a special rate for keeping the car overnight. Normally, the charge is by the hour or by the day.

Before I could leave on my drive I had to find the car I had reserved. Zipcars have a regular spot where they are parked. Right now, the two cars are located near Western Michigan University’s campus at one of the apartment complexes. I wasn’t really familiar with more than the general location. Since it was easiest to remain near campus, I found a place to stay and did not leave until 5:30 p.m., a half an hour before the start of my "date."

In true first date fashion, I couldn't help but tell everyone about my adventures that night, starting with the friend whose place I chose for the afternoon. Finally, at 5:30 p.m. I was cashed out and packed up, starting on my trek as the sun slowly set behind me. My phone guided me 15 minutes to my Zipcar, working though a little nervousness as I thought I'd miss the spot -- just those jitters again.

I finally found my date -- and couldn't be more excited. I inspected the car for any damage, and the ride definitely looked good. I waved my Zipcard over the dot on the windshield and heard the "click" of the door unlocking. I was in!

Once I found the keys (always left in the car) and figured out the basics of driving my partner in crime for the night, the excitement finally waned. It was interesting to hear the pre-programmed radio stations, and I imagined the car-sharing community learned a lot about each other just from the subtleties: the seat moved back just so, the radio left behind on country or pop, and even the names of a synced phone or two.

Since I drove to Grand Rapids and also stopped to see friends at karaoke, I knew I would have to add gas. Seeing friends I don’t normally visit because of the distances and day of the week made me very happy, and wide awake. Stopping for gas near midnight and knowing I had to return the car by 8:30 a.m., I knew I wouldn't get much sleep. That kinda sounds date-like, too.

The car made it back in time -- and so did I.  Although I can't say we fell in love on the first date, I do see the potential for a long-term relationship, and am looking forward to the next encounter. Two thumbs up for bringing Zipcar to Kalamazoo. Can’t wait for the family to multiply throughout the area.

Stacy Burdette is the founder of Hacker Gals -- a makerspace-like community group, with a focus on women. She has a BA and an MBA from Western Michigan University, and is currently working on a degree in Psychology and Rhetoric and Writing Studies. Stacy enjoys volunteering and being involved in the Kalamazoo community.

This story first appeared at Startup Grind.