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Flexcar provides driving options

Students who need to drive a car only occasionally now have an alternative to the expense and hassle of operating a personal car on campus.

It’s Flexcar. Users may reserve rental cars by phone and pay only for how long and how far they drive.

With the approval and participation of the Portland State University, Flexcar offers students, faculty and staff a reasonable car rental service, charged by the hour plus mileage. A typical one-hour trip for grocery shopping might cost about $7.

Drivers don’t need to visit some car rental office and go through a lot of paper work every time they want to drive. There is no security deposit. After paying a one-time membership fee, users can reserve in advance, pick up their cars on campus and return them on campus and they get billed by mail.

Renting through Flexcar rather than owning an on-campus car can relieve occasional drivers of vexing problems. Flexcar takes care of all registration, insurance, gas and oil and maintenance.

Owning and operating a car on-campus poses the special problem of finding on-campus parking. Typically, parking permits in the parking structures are sold out. Meters and casual parking structure spaces often are full.

PSU established an official connection with Flexcar in May. Dan Zalkow, assistant manager for Transportation and Planning Services, says the connection offers special benefits to students.

“We think it’s a good program,” he said. “We’re with them to promote it.”

The normal one-time membership fee to join Flexcar is $25 but PSU students get a special deal, $10 off the normal fee or a total of $15.

As a further benefit, any student who has a Tri-Met bus pass can fax a copy of it to Flexcar and receive a one-time credit of $35.

The company has three vehicles placed in different locations on campus. One is behind the Pizzicato on Southwest Mill Street, one in the University Center building garage and the third in the Ione Plaza basement garage. All are four-door sedans with air conditioning, cruise control and premium sound systems.

“We’ve already received very positive comments about Flexcar,” Zalkow said, “It seems to serve a lot of people’s needs.” He sees it as particularly desirable in view of the critical shortage of parking.

Zalkow works closely with Steve Gutmann, Portland business accounts manager. Gutmann says the Flexcar concept originated in Switzerland, where it has 50,000 members and 2,000 cars, fully integrated into the transportation system. It is rapidly spreading in the United States.

Flexcar currently operates 35 cars in the Portland area, 60 in Seattle and 40 in Washington, D.C. A member in one place is entitled to membership privileges in all locations. This means a Portland member can reserve a car in Seattle, pick it up and return it there.

Gutmann predicts cars soon will be available at some MAX stops, a program he hopes to be in place by the end of this year.

Students interested in joining Flexcar may visit the campus transportation and parking windows on the first floor of Neuberger Hall. Personnel there have explanatory brochures.

College Housing Northwest also is actively promoting the program, with fliers displayed in student resident halls.

To join Flexcar, applicants for membership must be 21 and have a credit or debit card. The applicant must have a reasonably good driving record with no more than two accidents or moving violations in the last three years.

Applications are taken online at A screen will pop up with a button for “join.” Pressing it will guide the applicant through the application process. An information phone number is available at 503-328-FLEX.

Gutmann explained the process for reserving a car. The member dials an 800 number and punches in a member identification number. The phone menu guides the user to punch a button for reservations. The user asks for a reservation for a certain time and date and the desired vehicle location.

If the reservation is confirmed, the user goes to the vehicle location, gets a key out of a lockbox by using the lockbox code. At the end of the trip, the user fills out a trip ticket. The company is working toward installing electronic trip recording in its vehicles, but that remains in the future.

Flexcar has a variety of rate plans. For drivers who need a car only once in a while, there is the test drive plan, $3.50 an hour plus 90 cents a mile. For those who plan to use Flexcar at least once a month, there is a sliding scale of advantage plans. They range from five hours a month for $35 up to 100 hours for $525 a month. Each hour under the advantage plans includes 10 free miles. There is no hourly charge for use between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“If you need a car for more than 100 hours a month, you may as well own your own car,” Gutmann says.

He sees Flexcar especially an advantage for two classes of drivers. One class finds it cheaper to use Flexcar than to own a car. The other may own a car, but prefer to bicycle, bus or walk to campus, leaving the car at home. These people could use Flexcar as a second car for trips close in. People who own cars habitually use them even for short trips, he points out. Using Flexcar motivates people to drive only when necessary, helping the environment by reducing air pollution.

The local Flexcar operation consists of an axis of two operations in Seattle and Portland, which merged into one company. Dave Brooks, who operated the former Car Sharing company, is the Portland general manager. Flexcar has expanded to Palo Alto, Long Beach and San Jose, Cal.

“We plan to be up and down the West Coast in three to five years,” Gutmann says. “Our goal is 30 cities in five years.”

American Honda Motor Company in March announced it bought an 18.4 percent interest in the Flexcar system. Honda says it has been involved in car sharing since 1994, when it launched a test program in Japan. Many cars in the Flexcar fleet here are Hondas.