BOSTON -- It took only a month for the traffic jams, insurance costs and parking woes of Cambridge to persuade Katherine Watkins to sell her car when she moved to the Boston suburb from Kentucky.
But after two years of riding the bus and taking cabs, Watkins finally broke down and got another car -- sort of.
She became a customer of Zipcar, a Cambridge-based company that allows her to share a lime green Volkswagen Beetle with more than a dozen other people.
''My cat was sick and I had to bring her to the vet, and it was just too much to do in a cab,'' she said. ''I finally decided I really do need a car, just not all the time.''
Now Watkins pays just $4.50 an hour and 40 cents a mile whenever she needs the added convenience.
''Some people don't need a car about 85 percent of the time,'' said Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase. ''But they have to buy a whole car just to fill that tiny need. Those are the people we want to come to us.''
Here's how Zipcar, which opened this spring, works:
The company owns and insures all the cars. Members get cards or keys to get into the cars, which are parked at a designated spot. Reservations can be made online or over the phone, and the only rule is to get the car back on time. If the car is already booked, members either have to take an alternate car, or wait until the car they usually drive is available. Members can fill the gas tank with a company credit card.
Zipcar charges a $20 late fee, and drivers who are consistently late lose their membership.
The annual membership is $75 a year, plus a $300 deposit.
Car-sharing services, whose prices range nationwide from less than $2 an hour to $9 an hour, can get pricey for people who drive long distances or take the car on an overnight trip. But for people who just need to go to the grocery store, a doctor's appointment or visit a friend out of town, car sharing can be cheaper than renting a car.
At Budget Rent-A-Car, which pledges ''low daily and weekly rates,'' a rental car in Boston costs about $45 a day. Other companies charge between $40 and $50 a day, plus additional charges for mileage and insurance.
The idea of car sharing was spawned in Switzerland in 1987, when Mobility Car Sharing put its first car on the road in the traffic-congested city of Lucerne. The company now has 1,300 cars at 800 locations around Switzerland, and serves more than 33,000 customers, according to the company's Web site.
The Swiss company's success was duplicated in big cities in Austria, France, Sweden and Germany, and the idea spread overseas to Canada in 1995.
The first American car-sharing company opened in Portland, Ore., in 1998. Others are in Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
''People come to us who don't need to drive to work every day,'' said Maren Souders, spokeswoman for Carsharing Portland Inc. ''They all work from home or ride their bikes, but every now and then need a car to get somewhere fast.''
Zipcar president Keefer Welch admits sharing a car is not exactly like owning one.
''You might get in each time and find the preset radio stations have been changed,'' Welch said. ''But otherwise, people will find it's just like having your own car.''
Zipcar hopes to have the same kind of success in the Boston area that other car-sharing companies have had around the country. Since it began with one car this spring, it has grown to nine cars and 70 members.
In Seattle, Flexcar opened in January with just four cars. It now has 12 cars and 350 members.
As Watkins explains, services such as Zipcar are a welcome luxury for people who appreciate the convenience of having a car, but not what it costs to maintain one in the city.
''It's a relief not to have a car anymore,'' said Watkins. ''But it's also a relief to know if we need one, it's there.''
On the Net:
Mobility Car Sharing: http://www.mobility.ch
Carsharing Portland Inc: http://www.carsharing-pdx.com
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