PORTLAND, Ore. -- Arjuna Veeravagu's red mountain bike can take him to classes, but for shopping, hauling his drum set or picking someone up at the airport, he needs a car.
After a quick phone call to a car-sharing service recently, he is given the keys to a white Dodge Neon.
"Tonight, I have a cousin in town at the airport for a few hours," Veeravagu, 25, said. "Any time I need to go farther than I can bicycle, that's my main method of transportation."
Car sharing has drawn a huge following in Europe over the past decade, but it's still a relatively new concept in the United States, where the very idea of a communal car flies in the face of the cherished American notion -- you are what you drive.
Still, with a few fledgling services -- mostly in the Northwest -- car sharing is starting to catch on for short-term errands where mass transit is inconvenient and daylong car rental too costly.
"This offers an alternative to everyday transportation, for those occasions when a car is most appropriate," said Russell Martin, general manager of CarSharing Portland, which has six cars and a truck in its fleet.
While borrowing cars reduces traffic congestion and is good for the environment, those who are joining say the real attraction is the bottom line.
"I'm saving an incredible amount of money," said Dave Moser, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer who packs up his drawings and gear five times a month for a tour of building sites.
At 30 cents a mile, plus $1.50 an hour, Moser figures it ends up costing about $12 every time he uses the car -- far less than the $30 daily rate for a rental car. Since Moser is reimbursed for mileage by his employer, his personal cost drops to practically nothing.
And by borrowing instead of owning, Moser no longer has a car payment or the $140 a month he was paying for insurance.
The only cost he and others must deal with is the $500 security deposit -- which essentially is prepayment of the insurance deductible -- and the hourly and mileage rate. The car-sharing company provides insurance, maintenance, even gasoline.
CarSharing Portland, which put its first two cars on the road in February, already has more than 50 people signed up. Martin expects it will be another year before they break-even, but he hopes it will eventually become a lucrative business.
About half the car-sharing members in Portland had no car, and half were selling a second car or didn't want a second vehicle.
The state of Oregon, which had a hand in establishing the new enterprise, touts its environmental benefits.
"There aren't enough superlatives to describe it," said Nina DeConcini, of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "This is what government should be doing."
CarSharing Portland is providing the service under contract to the DEQ, which obtained funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We want to see vehicle miles reduced, which then ... reduces emissions," DeConcini said.
Environmentalists are watching with interest.
"The reason why I find it so exciting is that it brings the whole issue down to a personal level," said Chris Hagerbaumer, transportation program director with the Oregon Environmental Council.
"Everyone knows we should drive less or use fewer resources, but we're motivated by things that help us individually," she said. "You can save money. You can be motivated because it's good for the environment. Or you can be motivated by the idea that you own many cars, just not one car."
Hagerbaumer said car-sharing serves a social need as well, providing mobility to people on limited incomes.
The designers of the Buckman Heights apartment complex had all these issues in mind when they contracted with CarSharing Portland to make cars available on site.
"It wasn't a real hard sell," said Ed McNamara, director of development with Prendergast and Associates Inc.
The complex has offered to pay half the security deposit for residents who become car-sharing members.
"I think people will do it for all kinds of reasons," McNamara said. "And if it gets people to do the right thing environmentally, that's great."
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