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Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Car share programs, initially geared toward urban professionals looking to utilize vehicles for quick errands, are making stronger bids for the business market by appealing to companies' environmental sensibilities as well as their bottom line.

While limos and taxis might still be the gold standard for business travellers to get around town, share programs that offer people ways to customize auto rentals for a few hours or even a few minutes are gaining in popularitywith businesses and business travellers, and the trend shows no signs of abating.

The convenience, flexibility and low cost compared to car ownership are what attracted Vancouver-based marketing director Wendy Underwood to join both Zipcar, the world's largest car share program, and Car2Go, another major player, several years ago.

"We live in the city so driving for us is not something we need to do every day," she explains. "One of my clients is out in Abbotsford, which is a good hour drive, so I use it for them. The last time I was in Toronto, I had to go out to Mississauga to meet with a client, so I got a Zipcar for that.

"Otherwise I'd have to rent … and that would mean an extra trip downtown to pick up the car and then I'd have to try and find parking at the hotel or have them park it and that's another $30 a night. This way I can pick one up just about anywhere and drop it back without having to worry about some guy coming out to check the kilometres or anything."

Although the earliest car sharing schemes date back to housing projects in Switzerland in the 1940s, the modern programs didn't begin to take shape until the 1990s. Canada, which has 5,000 cars available to more than 280,000 users, according to 2014 data from the U.S.-based Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC), has been among the world pioneers.

Quebec's Communauto program, started in 1994, was the first of its kind in North America and remains a going concern today with its 32,000 users and a fleet of 1,300 vehicles. Vancouver's Car Share Co-Op, now Modo, claims to be "the first car sharing program in the English speaking world." Begun in 1997 with five members, it now has 11,000 drivers and nearly 350 cars – including what it calls the most diverse fleet of any car share program – and it recently expanded into Victoria.

Both Modo and Communauto are relatively local operations, however, and the market these days is dominated by massive, global operations such as Zipcar, now a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group, with nearly a million members and more than 10,000 vehicles in six countries.

Zipcar is now wooing the business traveller and has recently started making cars available for pick up at select airports, including Toronto Pearson International.

Like Avis, Hertz has also entered the short-term rental market with its Hertz 24/7 program that offers one-way rentals from a range of vehicles. The program has gone through a number of iterations, however, and while it's being rolled out widely in the United States and Europe, it has yet to offer the service in Canada.

Enterprise Holdings, which also owns Alamo and National car rental agencies, recently added Toronto-based AutoShare to its portfolio. Enterprise is steadily building a network of locally based car share programs and has purchased a host of others, including PhillyCarShare and Chicago-based IGO CarSharing.

Although the field is crowded, new players are still coming into the market and adding new ways to customize short-term rentals, as well.

Begun in Germany in 2008, Car2Go, owned by automotive giant Daimler, now operates in seven European and North American countries and claims more than one million registered members worldwide.

Where Zipcar and AutoShare offer a range of vehicles and charge by the hour, Car2Go offers Smart Fortwo cars and charges by the minute, but also has discounted hourly and daily rates. Unlike it's main competitors, however, cars can be dropped off just about anywhere and parking is free. Car2Go is also appealing to businesses and provides corporate accounts with detailed invoices each month that details every journey taken, including times, addresses and distances for each usage.

Daimler isn't the only car manufacturer to see potential in car sharing. BMW's DriveNow program recently expanded out of Germany to San Francisco. Its fleet of 100-per-cent electric BMWs are located at charging stations around the city.

It also offers one-way trips for its clients and charges a set price for the first half hour and then by the minute. In a business world, where time is money, programs like these are constantly being fine-tuned to appeal to the bottom line.

Sharing stats

A 2005 study by California researchers showed that 82 per cent of U.S. car share users and 96 per cent in Canada were residential individuals, using the vehicles to get around their neighbourhoods. The business demographic was just 12 per cent and 3 per cent, respectively. But the study noted the business representation would increase.

"In Canada, neighbourhood residential is expected to decrease in market share to 80 per cent," says the study from the University of California, Berkeley. "Most of the remaining share will be captured by growth in the business market, which is expected to expand to between 10 to 15 per cent of the total market."

Those projections are borne out by European data from last year showing 16 per cent of car share users were business customers.

Precise and current Canadian and North America numbers are less readily available, though. The U.S.-based Transportation Sustainability Research Center, which follows car sharing closely, says companies don't generally provide it with that specific data.

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