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Looking to increase its efficiency and improve sustainability, Chicago has partnered with Zipcar Inc. to turn its existing car fleet into a self-service, car-sharing network.

Under the arrangement, Chicago uses its own vehicles and pays for insurance and gas, but also has the ability to pick from Zipcar’s shared pool of cars, which are located at stations across the city. The program is fully hosted, with all hardware and software for the city-owned vehicles installed and managed by Zipcar. All a city has to do is continue to operate and maintain its car fleet.

The integrated program could save Chicago hundreds of thousands of dollars in transportation costs over the next several years, according to a statement released by Zipcar.

Michael Serafino, general manager of Zipcar’s FastFleet program, explained how the program was implemented in Chicago.

“Employees are to look [online] for a city car first and if there are none available at the time and place where they want, they are given a link to find a Zipcar,” Serafino explained. “[This way] they can lean their fleet as much as possible without negatively impacting employee mobility. Their blend is the best of both worlds.”

Chicago combined Zipcar’s FastFleet sharing technology program together with Zipcar4Business (Z4B), the program that allows businesses to utilize Zipcar-owned vehicles outside the city-owned vehicle fleet. The FastFleet software package is connected to hardware in city-owned cars that allows the company’s reservation system to work.

When using Z4B, government officials and employees will be able to reserve a Zipcar vehicle as they need it, with the city paying only for the time the car is actually used.

Jonathan Gonsky, general manager of Zipcar Chicago, said in a statement that by the end of this spring, Zipcar anticipates making more than 500 Zipcars available in Chicago for citywide government use — including 75 cars stationed downtown.

Here’s how the basic Zipcar system works: Once users have an account with Zipcar, they reserve a car online, use a keyless entry “Zipcard” coded to that particular person, find the Zipcar’s location around the city and hold the card up to the windshield to unlock the doors. The user then can driver the car and return it at a Zipcar station when finished.

Pricing for the company’s services depends on the size of the city’s fleet and other factors.

Washington, D.C., first started using FastFleet for its own cars in 2009. Wilmington, Del., and Santa Cruz County in California also utilize the service. New York City took a slightly different route and started a pilot program in 2010 for the city’s Department of Transportation, providing car sharing memberships to some DOT employees.

The “green” benefit of car sharing is fairly obvious. Fewer vehicles and better usage management reduces emissions and fuel consumption. Serafino said Zipcar provides FastFleet customers with detailed information on car usage, so they can judge what type of impact their cars may be having on the environment and make changes appropriately.

“The data we provide them allows decision support to make choices on which cars, how many cars and where,” Serafino said. “In other words, you don’t need a minivan where you might be able to use a [Toyota] Prius.”

Zipcar isn’t the only car-sharing service in the United States. Car rental giants Hertz (Connect by Hertz) and Enterprise (WeCar) both have sharing programs, as does U-Haul (U Car Share) and a handful of others, according to the car-sharing enthusiast website CarSharing.net.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.