How to start your own car-sharing service for suburban life

The supermarket, post office, elementary school and several nice restaurants are all within a two-mile walk from my family's cozy little suburban home. Our problem? Well, actually we have two:

The first is the 50-mph traffic on the main road towards all of those places. No sidewalks. No shoulders. Nothing but grass on one side, and traffic on the other. It's a dangerous place to bike or walk.

Our second issue is where we live: the greater Atlanta metropolis. For those of you who haven't been introduced to the wonders of southern weather, let me just say that after a few minutes of walking, you feel water condensing on your body within seconds due to the intense humidity.


The booming car-sharing industry has held itself out to people just like us as a transportation alternative, but there's a few challenges. Our family of four spends about two hours a day driving to the places we need to go, and the occasional trips to family and friends during the weekends often involves even longer drives. So for right now, paid car-sharing services such as Zipcar and Getaround are not a practical alternative.

What's popped up instead is a homegrown form of car sharing among the vehicles in nearby driveways —one I and my neighbors organize without paying a middle man.

When our retired neighbors need a minivan, we have one that is always ready for them to use. A 2003 Chrysler Town & Country. 120,000 miles. Nothing fancy. But the seven seats are a perfect fit for whenever they have family visit from out of town.

Likewise, if I need to use a small pick-up truck for Home Depot runs or unusual purchases at nearby auctions and yard sales, my neighbor's 1996 Toyota Tacoma is almost always available; I was recently able to transport a full bench press and weight set thanks to their older truck.

For those few times we need a trailer or a tow dolly, our neighbors down the street have one along with a full-sized van with plenty of towing capacity for their irrigation business. No need for us or the neighbors to call U-haul or join AAA. Likewise, I have helped them safely store their irrigation supplies so that the county code enforcement agents find something better to do with their lives.

Everybody helps each other out, we trust one another, and it all works just fine, much like a friendly babysitting co-op. We have found that a few unique ingredients help make this process a fairly seamless one:

Know Thy Neighbor: We have all lived in the same neighborhood for nearly 20 years. I have taken note of how they drive, and they have seen me behind the wheel as well. All of this helps when offering the keys or even a helping hand.

Older Cars Work Better: Lending a $40,000 car would give anyone the jitters. A car 10 years or older? Or one well past the 100,000 mile mark? It's often not even a second thought.

Find Mutual Needs: A lot of folks end up buying a loaded SUV, truck or crossover in the quest to find that one vehicle that can do it all. By listening to our neighbors, and finding out their occasional needs, we were able to offer a vehicle that complements this demand and doesn't cost too much at the pump.

Two Seats Can Be Better Than Four: One of the unusual consequences of this arrangement is that it has made it easier for us all to buy and keep our fuel efficient two seat vehicles for our daily travels. Our neighbors own regular small trucks, and I have kept a 1st generation Honda Insight and Mazda Miata for commuting and local jaunts.

The availability of another vehicle, or three, should things go awry has allowed us to move away from the one-size-fits-all, high-cost vehicle, and towards older transportation that better fits our daily lives. It also helps avoid the high cost of rental vehicles in case repair takes one out of service.

There are a few other obvious caveats with this light version of car sharing. You may need to verify that your insurance provider allows for "permissive use," letting you drive another person's vehicle so long as you maintain your current coverage. It also pays to have a flexible and easy-going mindset when it comes to cars in general, and to be a conservative driver.

Finally, focus on those types of vehicles, and equipment, that can accommodate the unusual job: The need to tow or move large items; the vehicle that can fit family and friends; the small trailer or dolly that can take care of those situations that usually require a rental or an annual car club membership.

By doing these things, you free yourself up to get the more affordable vehicle that can take care of 99 percent of your daily needs. You'll also wind up spending thousands less than if you opted for a gas sucking, jack-of-all-trades new vehicle.

It's not for everyone. But car sharing, even in the mildest of forms, can work very well in suburbia if you are willing to invest in the relationships and mutual benefits. This idea of sharing among a few people is a tough one within our culture. It's a challenge to find the right people, and the right resources, to make this work.

In your daily life, would a mild version of car sharing make a meaningful difference?

Photo: Motoramic illustration based on Tom Cochrane, Jesse Wagstaff, Velkr0 via Flickr