Campus & Community

Zipcar creator looks toward bigger challenges

6 min read

Chase’s hope for future: First Zipcars then no cars

Robin Chase has already changed the way we drive, but she’s not satisfied. Now she wants to change the way we live as well.

Robin Chase: ‘On the one hand, we equate cars with freedom, but on the other hand, our dependency on cars creates a loss of freedom.’ (Staff photo Phoebe Sexton/Harvard News Office)

Chase is the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, a company that makes it almost as easy to rent a car as it is to get cash from an ATM machine. Zipcar uses the Internet and wireless communication to deliver on its slogan, “Wheels when you want them.”

Chase, who has stepped down as Zipcar’s CEO but remains on the board of directors, is spending the 2004-05 year at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as a Loeb Fellow. The Loeb Fellowship Program, established in 1970, is designed to nurture the leadership potential of promising men and women in design and other professions related to the built and natural environment.

The idea for Zipcar came to Chase in 1999 while she was having coffee in a Cambridge café with friend and company co-founder Antje Danielson. Danielson, who is German, told Chase about a company in Berlin that rented its cars by the hour rather than by the day.

“I thought, what a brilliant idea! This is what the Internet was made for.”

The concept offered the perfect solution to her own predicament. Living in Cambridge with her husband and three kids, Chase often felt the need for another vehicle, but she was reluctant to take on the expense of a second car or to add more greenhouse gases to the environment. And having worked for several companies since earning an M.B.A. from the Sloan School of Management in 1986, she was eager to launch her own startup.

She and Danielson incorporated in early 2000 and by 2001 had a small fleet of cars operating on the streets of Boston and Cambridge. Now the business has expanded into New York City and Washington, D.C., with thousands of customers who pay an annual fee to become Zipcar members and receive a personalized electronic card called a Zipcard.

When they go online to reserve one of Zipcar’s fleet of vehicles (parked in convenient locations around the city), a wireless system programs the car door to unlock when the customer holds his or her card up to a sensing device on the windshield. Cars can be rented for an hour or up to several days. At the end of the rental period, you simply return the car to its designated spot, and the rental fee is charged to your credit card.

Six Zipcars are now located on the Harvard campus and through an arrangement with the Harvard Commuterchoice program, University affiliates can join Zipcar at a substantial discount.

Chase is using her year as a Loeb Fellow to take what she has learned from her Zipcar experience and apply it to the larger problems of transportation, land use, urban sprawl, and environmental decay. She is struck by what she sees as a paradox of a car-based society.

“On the one hand, we equate cars with freedom, but on the other hand, our dependency on cars creates a loss of freedom.”

Because of cars, American cities have sprawled outward over natural and agricultural landscapes. Where people work and where they live have become farther and farther apart, necessitating long hours spent in traffic on increasingly congested freeways. Suburban dwellers have become dependent on cars for their survival. Access to stores, restaurants, entertainment, medical care, and social engagements is often impossible without getting behind the wheel. And to make matters worse, this situation causes those who cannot drive – namely, the very young and the very old – to be dependent on those who can. As the baby boom generation enters their 70s, 80s, and 90s, this problem is bound to grow more and more acute.

The consequences for the global environment will become even more serious when India and China, now undergoing rapid economic development, begin to imitate the West’s pattern of car ownership with all its attendant ills. Already China has become the number two importer of fossil fuels, while the number of cars in Shanghai has doubled in the past year, Chase says.

Furthermore, buying and maintaining a car is an expensive proposition. According to Chase, 20 percent of household income is spent on cars.

“What an amazing crunch we’ve set up for our society.”

The solution, Chase believes, is to induce people to live in urban areas where cars are unnecessary. Chase herself, who has chosen to raise her family in Cambridge and does nearly all her local travel by foot, bike, or public transportation, is a living example of this philosophy.

“Just the other day, my 11-year-old wanted to get some fabric markers to make a Red Sox T-shirt. If we lived in the suburbs, I’d probably have to drive her somewhere, but I just told her to walk over to Pearl Art and Craft Supplies on Mass. Ave. and get it there. She can buy nearly anything she wants on her own two feet.”

Chase realizes that there is no way to condense a Phoenix or Los Angeles into a version of Manhattan or Hong Kong, but she believes changing people’s mind about lifestyle choices is very much worth doing.

“You can’t change cities that already exist, but every new development can make things worse or better.”

But how to get people to give up their manicured lawns and shrubbery and move to the noisy, dirty city? It’s a hard sell, Chase admits, but she feels sure there’s a way of doing it.

She believes that her success with Zipcar may hold the key to putting a positive spin on city life. The company, she points out, is no slavish imitation of the German model, but rather a radical transformation utilizing sophisticated branding techniques.

“In Europe the business was seen as a sort of co-op operation that emphasized low costs. But I set out to make Zipcar into a smart, hip, urban choice. People feel that they belong to a club, and they’re pleased to be part of it. Now I’m looking for a clever, subversive way to make people fall in love with cities again.”