Share Your Ride

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Like a lot of Brooklynites—just about 54%—I don’t own a car. In fact, I’ve never owned a car. Before New York I lived in Hong Kong and Tokyo, two cities that are even denser and easier to get around car-less than New York. In college there never seemed much of a need for a car, or for that matter a need to leave campus. (Thanks, Terrace Club.) I haven’t driven regularly since high school in suburban Pennsylvania, and even then I borrowed an old minivan from my parents, which ensured that speeding or almost any other sort of automotive fun would be impossible. Since then, I’ve had no car to call my own.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t need to drive. Just try hauling a load back from Ikea on the subway. Sometimes I’ll borrow my friend Paul’s minivan—he has a daughter, and hence a need to cart around an absurd amount of stuff—but he has the annoying tendency of needing to drive it occasionally. (Also there was the time I broke the parking brake.) What I need is a larger pool of cars to potentially borrow, but that pool is limited because a) I don’t have that many friends, and b ) those I do have also live in New York, so they don’t have cars.

That—potentially—is where the innovative startup RelayRides comes in. And if their business plan works, I might never have to worry about borrowing a ride again.

MORE: Borrow, Don’t Buy: Websites That Let Strangers Share

RelayRides wants to create a peer-to-peer car sharing network. Car owners essentially rent out their vehicles during the 23 hours a day that the average car sits parked and unused. There’s no shortage of available cars—as Farhad Manjoo writes in Slate, there are 1.2 cars for every licensed driver in America. So plenty of unused, available cars. Of course, there’s the risk that a car sharer could damage the vehicle—or someone else in a crash—and leave the original driver liable. So when RelayRides CEO Shelby Clark—who came up with the idea for the company as a Harvard MBA—tried to launch the start-up, the biggest obstacle was car insurance. He was able to arrange a $1 million collision and liability policy that covers drivers borrowing other people’s cars, and launched the company first in Boston in 2010 and then San Francisco. So far the site has about 200 car-owners and 6,000 drivers. “We proved that it can work,” Clark told me.

Of course, a car-sharing site in Boston and San Francisco doesn’t do a New Yorker like me any good. But RelayRides is taking the next step and going national. Anyone in the country will be able to list their car for a short-term loan, and everyone over 21 years old with a goo driving record will be able to apply to become a renter. Though a partnership with General Motors, RelayRides will allow keyless entry into any car that has GM’s OnStar roadside support system, which already has 6 million subscribers. (Previously RelayRide car owners had to install an electronic keyless entry system that allows borrowers to access the vehicles without a key.) The pool of potential RelayRiders is about to get a whole lot bigger. “We’re going to be the only car-sharing to be available nationwide,” says Clark.

MORE: Will Car-Sharing Networks Change the Way We Travel?

RelayRides is hardly the first car-sharing network out there—after all, Zipcar has been quite successful with 673,000 drivers and 8,900 vehicles in the U.S., Canada and Britain. But Slate’s Manjoo explains why a national RelayRides could be such a big deal for how we get around:

Notice the huge disparity there—there are 75 drivers for every available car. That’s by design: Because a traditional car-sharing service has to buy, maintain, and arrange parking for all of its vehicles, it has an incentive to keep as few cars per user as possible. That works beautifully in some places. Car-sharing thrives in small, dense cities and college campuses, places where there are lots of drivers, the walking and driving distances are short, and owning a car is a hassle. But most places in America aren’t like that. In the suburbs, the exurbs, and sprawling metropolises like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston, traditional car-sharing services only set up shop in the busiest locations. Everyone else is out of luck.

RelayRides’ model, by contrast, has no fixed costs. The company doesn’t pay anything if you offer to loan your car but live in a place where it’s unlikely to get rented very often. (RelayRides only pays for insurance while the cars are in use.) As a result, the company can potentially offer cars everywhere. I live in a Northern California suburb where Zipcar wouldn’t have any incentive to install a car lot. With RelayRides, several of my neighbors could offer their cars for rent on weekday afternoons. Over time, there could be enough cars available within walking distance that I could be sure I’d always have a car and would be able to get rid of my own ride altogether.

That’s great for people like me who need a ride, but it’s also great for drivers. RelayRides allows you to set the hourly rate for your car, and lets you keep 60% of the fee. The company says that car owners make an average of about $250 a month, and Clark himself—who rents out his car—says he makes significantly more. Car sharing represents free money that could help take the sting out of high gas prices. “There are so many examples of why this makes sense,” says Clark.

Of course, it’s going to take time for RelayRides to really spread nationwide, but it’s already spreading—I found a car to share on the site that’s just a couple of miles from my office in Manhattan. Environmentalists should be cheering for car sharing—if it takes off, it will mean fewer cars on the road and reduced greenhouse gases. And best of all, I’ll be able to borrow a car that isn’t full of toddler toys and Cheerios.

MORE: A Quiet Green Win for Obama on Auto Efficiency