Why Do Zipcar Users Abuse the Cars? 4 Lessons For the Access Economy

A ZipCar Min Cooper in ManhattanThe access economy could easily become a theme for a new season of In Treatment with its ongoing trust and behavioral issues. This week it lay on the couch while two researchers tried to figure out why consumers don’t take good care of their Zipcars. Ultimately Prof. Fleura Bardhi and Prof. Giana Eckhardt hoped to learn how consumer-object and consumer-to-consumer relationships work in the sharing economy overall. For starters, they found that although Zipcar attempts to build a brand community, consumers currently do not want this type of engagement.

“Our study represents the first look at how consumers think, feel, and act when they are accessing rather than purchasing products, and we discovered that the nature of access-based consumption is inherently different from ownership,” the researchers write. So what is exactly the nature of access consumption and what does it mean for the future of the access economy?

The study, Sharing Isn’t Always Caring: Why Don’t Consumers Take Care of Their Zipcars?, will be published in December in the Journal of Consumer Research provides an interesting academic perspective on the access economy. The researchers identified six dimensions or types of access – temporality, anonymity, market mediation, consumer involvement, type of accessed object and political consumerism.

The study focuses on market-mediated access-based consumption and more specifically on car sharing, conducting it  with Zipcar users.  The researchers not only interviewed Zipcar users (40 in total), but also rode in Zipcars with them to gain a firsthand understanding of how consumers use Zipcars, conduct transactions, follow company regulation and so on. Their analysis generated four main findings that might be specific to Zipcar, but also provide valuable lessons to the rest of the access economy, including both peer-to-peer and market-mediated services:

1. Lack of identification with the accessed objects (or: Zipcar equals a hotel room): The researchers show how three of the dimensions of access – specifically short-term temporal duration, anonymity, and market mediation, inhibit a sense of identification with the item used. As Ashley, one of the interviewees said, “Zipcars are sort of like hotel rooms: they’re clean, anonymous, and comfortable but not really cozy. It’s like a hotel room kind of experience, where you’re in some place that’s really not yours; you’re never going to be really comfortable.”  The conclusion was that the relationship to the shared cars is one of instrumental utility rather than connection.

Lesson for the access economy: A sense of identification with your service is the Holy Grail but it doesn’t mean you can’t do well without it.

2. Varying significance of use and sign value: The researchers explain that interviews mostly discuss consumption motivations such as reducing expenses and increasing convenience as the primary reasons for their participation in the car-sharing program. This is what the researchers call use value. At the same time their data also suggests that “although the Zipcars themselves are valued because of their use value, the practice of access is gaining sign value, with the sign value being a more economically savvy and more flexible form of consumption than ownership.”

Lesson for the access economy: It’s important not only to emphasize the benefits users actually care about, but also make sure you brand your service accordingly.

3. Market’s norms of negative reciprocity and a big-brother governance model – Negative reciprocity means here that Zipcar users act in their own self-interest when they use cars and assume others were doing the same. As one of the interviewees put it: “You can just beat the hell out of it; it’s not your car… So if I destroy the suspension, so be it! Somebody will fix it. Not me.” It’s not too surprising to learn that the interviewees see the monitoring and regulatory role of Zipcar as what is needed to ensure the system works. In other words, they welcome a big-brother system that will control and monitor users behavior, fining them for leaving the cars dirty or with almost no gas in the tank.

Lesson for the access economy: Don’t trust people’s kindness and apply the most effective system to disincentivize misbehavior.

4. The deterrence of brand community, despite the company’s efforts to build one – The researchers found that there is a distinct lack of community among Zipcar users, even though the company is attempting to build one. The reality is that “Informants see Zipcar as a service provider as well as the enforcer and governing body, rather than as a facilitator of a brand that helps them to connect to like-minded people.” The researchers note that Zipcar failed in its attempts to create rituals among users like waving to each other on the road, as well in rallying them around the green advantages of using car sharing. Apparently, users are not too interested in such rituals and don’t really find the green theme so convincing or exciting.

Lesson for the access economy: If you want to create a sense of community within your users, check with them first and see how many of them actually want it. If not, just leave it.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

28 responses

  1. It is possible to produce a small, energy efficient car stripped down, light, energy efficient for two or three thousand bucks. Indian consumers have access to this. Not Americans. Our consumer regulation, ostensibly to protect consumers, really act as price supports for corporate profits. There is no reason a sub-compact should cost 15000 dollar plus except the government. 

    The answer is less nanny-state government in many cases.

      1. Production of cheap models IS relevant because it these models were offered, there would be no need for sharing. I love the sharing option, but the fact that people are looking at that seriously show how far our ecomomy has fallen. 

        Rather than encourage coping with scarcity, we need to promote owneership and prosperity.

        1. You’re really paranoid man.   Zipcar is the opposite of scarcity.  It is abundance.  Think about it – instead of needing to own a car, I have access to a dozen cars of various models and types for every need I could have.   Why would I want to own one when I can access a dozen for cheaper?

        2. I don’t see how favoring prosperity and less government regulation of autos equals paranoid

        3. You’re worried this has something to do with scarcity.   Without government regulation of autos we’d be driving 4mpg pieces of junk and dying of lung disease.

    1. It’s interesting the different ways people look at things.  You seem like a guy who likes owning a car and (I’ll speculate) probably doesn’t live in a city where parking is scarce and where stores and the like are close at hand.

      At least here in DC I’m observing that Zipcars (and now Cars2Go) are increasingly popular because most of us only need a car from time to time, and they’re available all over the place.  Owning a car — with all its attendant hassles — is becoming the less preferred option, so wishing for a cheaper car to have to store and feed and care for is pretty much beside the point.  In our six-unit house, we have four parking spaces, but no one owns a car anymore.  However, everyone has a Zipcar membership.

      I have friends in less-walkable parts of DC who wouldn’t dream of living without a car, so Zipcar is pointless to them.  They might welcome your thoughts on getting a cheaper ride, but I don’t think they would sacrifice much in the way of safety to bring the price down.  (They also tend to like rather a lot of luxury items surrounding them.  I don’t think heated leather seats and surround-sound stereos come in super-cheap cars.)

  2. Roz, another really excellent article. Thank you, again. 

    The ZipCar case study really parallels the economics of consumer self interest. I will leave it to religious and ethics teachers to comment upon this aspect of humanity. But in terms of economics the ZipCar case study provides a compelling example of how regulation is a legitimate function in a free market and can create value for the consumer. Adam Smith, the founder of Economics came to the same conclusion. Please do not get me wrong, regulation is not something I prefer over more efficient economic and market place tools. But rules that address the economics of self interest vs. the common good, and the enforcement of such rules, would add to the economic success of ZipCar, our banking system, our stock market and our economy.  

  3. Good article, but I think it’s a little pessimistic.  Do drivers *really* abuse ZipCars?  I’ve been a customer for years and I’ve never seen any damage or trouble save the occasional time when someone neglected to fill up the tank.    I’d like to see the real evidence.

    I’m not sure people are any more or less incentives to take care of a zip car as they would be with any rental, though I supposed it’s a little easier to get away with it.    I’d be willing to put money down that these researchers are based in cynical New York or DC :-)

  4. Zipcar has an opportunity to build community — and protect their cars — by allowing reviews of cars and parking spaces. Over time, regular reviewers rated as useful would be valuable to other customers; and knowing that something of the rental history would be visible to the community would probably encourage more careful driving / parking / car care habits.

  5. Is it possible part of the issue is the product itself? What about the psychology of owning/using a car? In society it is more accepted that you own your own car, therefore sharing one (much like a house/apt) disconnects the user and projects a lesser image of the product. 

  6. Excellent points. We also see on our ride sharing platform carpooling.com that users are not interested much in being part of a community. But they value the human interaction during each ride very much. As a marketplace operator, we also try and apply the most effective system to avoid misbehavior – in our case commercial rides.

    1. I think rental cars also get a lot of abuse – but at least in that case they are being rented by the day or week rather than the hour. Zipcars are being used for a much higher percentage of the day (by people who are unfamiliar with the car, no less). 

      Part of the Zipcar appeal is the high use rate for the vehicles – but any car that’s being driven that heavily is bound to get worn out. 

  7. Axel, dude, I was talking about the ultra light cars I saw in Japan. They are not available here. Corporations will not sell them. 

    They will sell a trendy ultra light way over priced car. But a cheap, efificient car for the poor in this country (and Lord knows we have more and more of them) simply is not available.

    Not sure why. But various goverment offices that supposedly protect us give us about as much protection as Orwell’ss Ministry of Truth communicates the truth.

    1. Okay, yes, there is a lot of truth to that.  Plus our media (ie, Hollywood) continues to spread the message that the larger the car the larger your balls. Etc…  

      I do believe this has more to do with cheap gasoline however.  That is what really drives companies to not have any incentive to produce smaller, affrodable cars.  If gasoline were $5 a gallon for a long period, i guarantee you’d see some of those smaller Japanese cars coming along.

      1. I actually do not understand why you do not see more solar water heaters in places like Home Depot. When I lived in Japan, they were everywhere. And it was not environmentlaists/greenies but middle class people simply buying what was cost effective.

        With all the greenies here, I think people would buy it even at a slight loss out of idealism. Wish it were more aavailable. I almost bought one a couple of years ago. BUt right as I was about to get one, the gas complaany here passed a regulation. If you do not use gas to heat your home in summer, then you have to pay more for your heating gas in winter.

        So here in NC, we got to see first hand monopoloists sstifling competition. I hope that pointing out another monopolist abuse does not make me paranoid. I have always preferred the term conspiracy realist to conspiracy theorist.

  8. This was an interesting article for several reasons…number one being even though Zip cars have locations in my town, I had no idea they were available for short term hire.  Also, both the study and its conclusions are very believable, and I like the methodology used.  

    But by far the best bit of wisdom gleaned from this is Squirrel Head’s coinage of the term “conspiracy realist!”  Thank you for this bit of jargon, and I hope you don’t mind that I will be using it to counter epithets of conspiracy theorist from now on.

  9. Raz — I like your insights and think its important to have these conversations. Neal Gorenflo recently raised concerns in Shareable about the validity of this study. He questions drawing “conclusions about a global trend with
    a multitude of different services and users from a study of one service
    in one city from one demographic with a sample size of 40.”


  10. Great article, interesting findings. I also wonder about what a comparison between users of conventional rental cars versus zipcars would find. With a typical rental car, the car is serviced between users. So knowing that the car will be cleaned, I’m not concerned about leaving an empty soda bottle in the car if I can’t find a convenient receptacle. But with zipcars, a user’s experience depends on the courtesy of the person who used it prior to the share. I think the extent to which zipcar can gather mobile feedback about the condition of a car when a users share period is started would go a long way toward creating a sense of group obligation or conformity. Zipcar could then develop a rating of each user by others sharing the car. Technology could make it easy for the user to respond to a simple survey item at the beginning of the share period.  Perhaps It’s the anonymity that creates the moral hazard. No consequences=no behavior change. 

    1. I’ve been curious as to why there’s so little opportunity to interact with the ZipCar staff/mother ship via iPhone/Android app.  Being able to snap a picture of the car from within the app would be much more efficient than filing a dirty car or damage report.  (Perhaps this would be too easy and staff would spend all their time looking at pictures.)

      It would also be interesting to know if gentle admonishment might work without driving away customers.  If you got a picture of the dirty interior you left behind (sent by the next guy), what effect would this have?

      Zipcars here in DC seem to be in pretty sparkly condition all the time, so maybe Boston is just a different animal.

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