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Zip along with shared cars, bikes

The Zipcar and Flexcar merger, and cities' interest in bike-sharing, show openness to novel transit.

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Zipcar and Flexcar. They sound like a couple of cartoon characters. But last week's merger of these member-based, by-the-hour car-rental companies points to a noteworthy development in transport: car-sharing as a way to replace car-owning and to cut costs, energy use, and congestion.

Subscriber-based bike-sharing is also gaining traction, thanks to a popular program that started in Paris in July. The City of Light has had such success with its 10,000 rental bikes (the first half hour is free), that it's doubling the program – and catching the attention of Chicago, San Francisco, London, and Montreal.

This trend in personal transit-sharing may appeal to only a minority of people. With 200 million cars in the US today, car-share users are projected to top out at about 2 million (Zipcar, the name of the merged company, now has only about 200,000 users).

So the effects on US vehicle congestion and pollution are limited. And with an expected explosion of car sales in China and India (get ready for Tata Motors' $2,500 four-door, the world's cheapest automobile), the world needs many solutions to improve energy efficiency and reduce oil use.

On the other hand, automakers have yet to deliver a safe and affordable hydrogen-fuel cell car, and Congress has yet to force higher prices on fossil fuel to curb its use. "Just-in-time" cars and bikes can be available to individuals now, or in the not-so-distant future, in cities, at businesses, and at colleges (a growth market) – with a minimum of investment and inconvenience.

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