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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  California’s new car culture

California’s new car culture

California’s new car culture


Living as I do in the heart of Silicon Valley, I continue to marvel every day at the innovations that are just so naturally part of people’s lives here, especially when it comes to commuting.

On any given weekend, you could always see Bay Area residents getting around on every sort of wheeled device known to man. From regular bikes to the fascinating Penny Farthings and Unicycles, from the tantalizing Segways to the good ole’ Razor scooters, inline skates and Wheelies, from skateboards to their new cousin, the scary, wheeled wave-board, children and adults surfed the streets and pavements, adding their own unique charm to the Californian landscape.

You can still see them, but now not just on weekends and not just for recreational purposes. Today, they have a greater and more useful purpose. People are now using these and other innovative alternatives as a serious means for getting around. It is no longer unusual to see a middle-aged mom Razor scooty-ing to her gym, or a man in a dark suit and tie Segway-ing or skateboarding along to his next meeting. Actually, in this very techie part of the Bay Area, the odd part would be the man’s formal suit and tie, not the Segway or skateboard!

I’ve also noticed many more Zipcars on urban streets in the Bay Area these days. Also more hybrids, including the good old Prius, as well as non-hybrid Smart cars and the occasional Tesla Roadster, the brand new, locally grown, hip, all-electric sports car.

More people are choosing their cars based on mileage alone than at any other time. When fuel prices hit a high of $5 (Rs249) a gallon a few months ago, and SUVs became more infra-dig than ever before, people accelerated their decisions to dump gas-guzzlers in favour of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

In addition to free parking and the carpool lane advantage that hybrids get on the freeways (and the moral advantage that their owners get on the environment highway), these vehicles are making more and more economic sense in a wounded economy.

Now that the economic slowdown sweeping the US has permeated its final frontier, Bay Area residents are stepping up to the challenge with elegant and creative solutions grounded in pragmatism.

In the suburbs where I live, I notice that the population of those cute Global Electric Motor (Gem) cars has gone up—my neighbour down the street has one, and he is definitely smiling more as he whizzes past in this golf-cart type neighbourhood electric vehicle (NEV). I’m not sure if what is making him smile is the rebate that he probably got when he bought his Gemcar or just the liberation from ever having to put a single drop of petrol in that car (the California Air Resources Board offers rebates of up to $5,000 to consumers of alternative fuel vehicles).

But I do know what is making Kelli Glazier—a hip, attractive mom from my son’s school—happy as she drives her Gemcar to school.

“This is the most wonderful car to drive. It is heavenly," she says when I ask her how she likes it.

“It is so much fun. I absolutely love this car. It makes me happy to drive it; the novelty, the fun, the environmental benefits. It’s awesome," she says. “I get stopped at least, oh, two or three times a day by people asking about the car!"

Of course, the NEVs aren’t meant for the freeways or more urban areas. But in the suburbs or the neighbouring campus cities of Stanford, Berkeley or Davis, these cars are quickly gaining popularity.

For urban areas, however, the right answer seems to be car-sharing. Zipcar’s tag line, Only there when you want, perhaps explains why I find more of these zipping along when I’m in San Francisco, San Jose or Oakland, the “big city" outposts that define the north, south and east of the Bay Area. Zipcars offer people the Zen-like solution of never owning a car, merely having one when needed.

For those for whom the Zipcar is a mystery, it is really quite simple. Imagine cars parked around the city for members to use to drive by the hour, instead of owning their own vehicles. Zipcars are outfitted with wireless technology, which creates a reservation system for cars which are strategically placed in key locations. This works better in denser urban areas, where night-time garage space as well as day parking, are at a premium.

The Zipcar website says to date, it estimates that it has taken more than 90,000 personally owned vehicles off urban streets, through members surrendering ownership of their vehicles or halting a purchasing decision purely on economic sense. The website helps calculate just how much you would save if, instead of owning your vehicle, you just rented it per hour or day of use, based on return on investment, insurance premium, service, maintenance, parking and fuel costs. Zipcar members have said they save on average at least $435 per month, compared with car ownership—money more likely to be spent locally, another thing this area is big on.

Jyoti Pande is a writer based in California. Comment at

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Updated: 04 Dec 2008, 10:52 PM IST
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