Driving to the Middle

Hertz helps CC towards sustainability – and makes money in the process

by Sam Brasch, editor; illustrations by Eleanor Anderson, editor

“This is it,” said Logan Dahl, my host for this demonstration of the Hertz Connect carsharing program. The grey Prius sat north of Tutt Library, without any presumption of its own importance other than a small decal on the passenger door and a tiny black card reader on the inside of the front windshield. Logan took out his Hertz membership card and offered it to the automobile, but the car stubbornly refused. “Sometimes she gets a little pushy,” Logan explained. “As soon as I get this text message we should be good to go.” Just as he prophesied, his phone buzzed, letting him know the Prius was his for the next hour and a half. With an invisible signal from the Hertz headquarters, the car let its defenses down, going from a prudish daughter worried about her own security to a welcoming maternal hostess. Keys and a credit card for gas waited inside the dashboard, attached to the car with a thin nylon string. Logan smiled. “We’re good to go.”

Inside, it was hard not to notice the resemblance between the car and the man in the driver’s seat. Logan—a junior economics major and an at-large member of CCSGA—maintains his physical appearance in a way few CC students could fathom. Taking hold of the wheel, he shifted his shoulders until they balanced perfectly —like a teeter-totter—around the pivot point of his v-neck sweater. His jacket and pants appeared recently dry cleaned, taking on the same texture as the smooth and undamaged upholstery that I already felt I was dirtying as I swallowed the last bits of my lunch. “One of the downsides of sharing cars is that sometimes it ends up a little dirty,” Logan told me. “One time I found a pair of broken sunglasses in the center console, but they were gone the next time.”

Both the man and the car had a way of hinting at a synthesis between the formalities of the corporate world and the self-conscious morals of a liberal arts college. As we hummed our way towards King Soopers, Logan explained that he likes to rent the car around Christmas to take his girlfriend to see the lights around town, and always tries to stop off at the dry cleaners on his way home. “That’s what I love about this program—it makes you economically efficient.” As we drove, a small LED display on the dash switched between counting down the time Logan had left in his rental and thanking him both for choosing Hertz and for being green.

Never had paying a major corporation to drive to the grocery store felt so right.

Most CC students don’t like sharing. Sure, our DU rivals wear t-shirts labeling us as communists, but at the end of the day we fall prey to the whisper of American consumerism that says we should express ourselves through our material possessions. We love to own Macbooks, ski passes, puffy jackets, and Nalgene bottles. We possess our sleeping bags with a passion that should only be found among those awaiting the dissolution of civilization. Above all, we love our cars. “One of my favorite things about CC,” explained Sloan Danenhower—another well-dressed economics major and the main student force behind Connect—“is how sustainable we say we are, and then you go down Nevada and see how many SUV 4-wheel drive cars are lined up one after another. Here we are, students preaching sustainability, while we have unused gas guzzlers sitting in our parking lots.” But are we to be blamed? Not only does mobility in Colorado Springs require a car, but being an American means that you are so much more than what you eat, think or do. At the end of the day, you are what you drive.

The Hertz Corporation knows this. By far the largest car rental operation in the world, with 8,200 locations in 142 countries, Hertz offers its customers a vast variety of cars from which to choose. Feeling especially sporty? Hop into one of Hertz’s Fun Collection automobiles, ready to whisk you away for a good time with extra horsepower. Want something that says “status”? Don’t look beyond the Prestige Collection at your local Hertz dealership. Or are you an environmentally concerned college student, wondering whether owning a car might not be a great idea given our planet’s current predicament? Look no further the Connect program, finding its way to college campuses and metro areas nationwide. Building on other carsharing systems like Zipcar, Connect’s customers pay an hourly rate for cars parked in their neighborhood. And don’t be blinded by the high-minded morals of the Connect program—Hertz believes that Connect can be another profitable piece of its already expansive business. Sharing can make money.

The Hertz Connect program came to campus in the fall of 2009, and for a time it looked like our little western college was a patch of black ice for the rental car giant’s latest push into the burgeoning carsharing market. “Last year the program was new, and no one knew what to do with it,” explained Traci Thomas, the coordinator for Connect in the Rocky Mountain West region. “The next semester we found some help in the student body—mainly from Sloan—and he understands the program and really gets others involved.” With student activism behind it, the program finally found the traction it needed to get rolling at CC.

To bolster student interest in the program, Traci and Sloan marketed the program to CC’s student body, and maybe more importantly, to the students’ parents. At freshman orientation in 2010, the two emphasized how the program lets students practice sustainability, and encourages parents to give their kids access to Colorado Springs without the hassle of insurance payments, registration, gas costs, and all the other downsides of car ownership. “Students like the program,” explained Traci, “but parents loved, loved, loved it.”

To sell Connect to sophomore and junior students, Sloan challenged them to prove their attitudes and cultural values. “Carsharing is one action I take that single-handedly combines everything I’ve learned at CC into one: environmentalism, social equity, and environmental economics, to name a few. We can talk about what the world should be like all we want, but until we take meaningful action and give up our Subarus, Range Rovers and 4 Runners, we don’t have any right to complain. And most importantly, carsharing saves me money.” For Sloan, selling the program has been simple—the Connect program provides a chance for students to practice what they preach and find a way out of hypocrisy.

That last statement is true, to a point. The Hertz program charges users $8.00 an hour along with a $25 registration fee. For Colorado College students, Hertz has waived the initial registration fee, offering a rate that would seem like a steal for anyone who has ever rented a car from an airport. The trip Logan and I shared to the grocery store cost $12.00, which might seem staggering compared to the price tag of borrowing a buddy’s car, but fairly cheap if you bear in mind the price of insurance, maintenance, and gas, all of which Hertz includes in the rental fee. In short, paying as you go saves money compared to the complete cost of car ownership, but has a hard time competing with the CC tradition of mooching.

Still, Traci and Sloan’s two-pronged marketing push—to parents and students—has had huge results for the program. Membership has jumped from 65 in August of 2009 to 165 students to date. Not only have more students joined the program, but those who already have memberships are taking greater advantage of Connect. At the program’s beginning, the two cars in the Tutt parking lot sat unused 91 percent of each day. Now both vehicles have drivers on average of eleven hours out of every twenty-four. For Hertz, this means success in a new market modeled on a way of driving that emphasizes minimal use over car ownership. For students, it means a chance to do away with all the problems that come with having a car on campus, from parking tickets to steezy friends trying to bum a ride. And for the school, since Hertz gives CC a cut, it means a share of the booty. As the program has become more and more profitable, the revenue has begun to trickle back to CC. As Sloan emphasized, “It’s a win-win-win!”

Traci and Sloan have big aims for the program. In five years, both see Connect with more cars, more members, and more car usage. “We’d like to see 25 to 50 percent of students involved in the program, and probably another two cars [available for rent],” Sloan dreamed, losing himself a little in the idea before snapping back. “But more than that I want the program to get to the point where students are choosing not to bring cars to campus at all. I want this to be an alternative that really ends up making a difference.”

“Alternative” seems to be the right word to explain the logic behind Connect. Beyond economics, the program’s marketing is set up as a choice opposed to the ideals of car ownership. Where possessing a car is an embrace of the modern idea of privacy and personal property, sharing is a distinctly postmodern idea conscious of the need for people to fashion themselves within communities. Sure, Connect makes sense for our parents’ pocket books, but it also says something about our generation’s desire to move away from the forces that created those trust funds and stock portfolios. Many of us want to lead a different lifestyle from the subdivisions with multicar garages that spawned us, instead aiming for a joint sense of purpose that lets us feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves. In a weird way, we want to be the ones picking up the trash from the passenger seat of a shared Prius—it lets us know that we are among people, and not just the end point of consumerism.

For an economist, Connect is an alternative that presents users with a new set of rational choices. Where people who own cars drive in short jumps, having a car for a set amount of time forces users to sting errands together. “I am much more intentional when I have to go out,” Sloan explained. “If I am going to book the car for two to three hours, I group things up. I grocery shop and go on dates all at once. It has totally changed the way I drive.”

But whether you sing the praises of Connect as a philosophy major (myself) or an economics major (Sloan and Logan), the program offers a way out of the choice between being sustainably immobile and moving around Colorado Springs in an SUV getting thirteen miles per gallon. “In order to really reach the value of environmentalism—and this is true of American society as well as CC—we need to look at our transportation options,” said Sloan. Maybe Connect is an option for environmental change that plays to the market, that exists only by virtue of the largest car rental company in the world. At the same time, however, those behind the Connect program are driving progress towards sustainability at CC.

For all that stands out about the Connect program, what struck me most while inside Logan’s Prius was the way the program had managed to unite corporate interest with sustainable practice. Pestering Logan about whether the school should force sophomores into the program through a further restriction of parking on campus led only to shrugs. “I am a guy who believes that you have to incentivize people to take part in anything. This program, at the end of the day, really speaks for itself—you don’t need to be using punishment to get people interested when the rewards are already good enough. And that’s the way it should be.” Sharing is a good thing, but telling someone to share is another story.

As Logan shut off the silent electric motor, I noticed our two faces in the rear view mirror. He looked like an up and coming Bill Gates, I looked a bit like an adolescent Marx, pre-beard. I had to smile. The car felt like common ground.

Driving to the Middle (PDF)


Leave a comment

Filed under Boundaries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s