Last summer, after months of agonizing, I gave up my car. I loved having a car, but it was not an unconditional love: the traffic, the parking...

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Last summer, after months of agonizing, I gave up my car.

I loved having a car, but it was not an unconditional love: the traffic, the parking, the price of gasoline, the continual maintenance and repair. I never felt good about the environmental impact of owning a car, either. And since I didn’t really drive much — I live downtown and can walk to work — I decided to take the plunge.

Car-sharing made the transition possible.

With close to 45,000 car-free households in Seattle, the city’s car-less residents are something of a subculture. And for many of us, car-sharing has helped ease the transition to a car-free lifestyle.

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Car-sharing is well-established in many European cities, but the concept has only recently taken hold in the United States. It’s believed to have started in Seattle in 1999 with Flexcar, which began as a public-private partnership with King County Metro. Next year, Flexcar will gain a rival when East-Coast-based ZipCar opens here.

Unlike car rental, car-sharing works on a membership system. Members pay an hourly rate and use the cars only for as much time as they need. Cars can be reserved on the spur of the moment — either online or over the phone — and the driver can be on the road within minutes.

Flexcar has a fleet of about 120 cars parked in designated spots throughout Seattle. Members pick up and return the cars to these spots, and are responsible for fueling the car if needed, using the Flexcar credit card in each car. The cars are accessed through a key card, and a password is entered onto a keypad in order to start the ignition.

More information on Flexcar

On the Web: www.flexcar.com

Phone: 206-323-3539

The basic rate is $9 per hour, which includes gas, insurance ($500 deductible), and unlimited mileage. Users also pay an annual $40 membership fee and a one-time $35 application fee.

Before Flexcar, I was paying about $240 a month for parking, insurance, gas and maintenance on an older car that I owned outright. These days, my Flexcar bill is typically about $50 a month.

Flexcar works best for people like myself — urban dwellers who occasionally need a car to pick up a friend at the airport or haul stuff home from a shopping trip. A lot of cars are stationed within walking distance of my condo, but people who live in a less dense neighborhood may have to take a bus to get to the nearest car.

Flexcar might not make sense for a longer-term reservation, as it would be at least as expensive as a rental car. And remember, you pay the same amount for your Flexcar reservation whether you are driving or parked. If you are going to be staying put for a couple hours, a cab might be cheaper.

The online reservation process is fast — drivers log on to Flexcar’s Web site to reserve a car. The telephone system is a bit more time-consuming.

Recently, I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual for the cars in my neighborhood, Belltown, to be reserved all day on weekends. Sometimes I have to choose a car farther away from my condo, or wait a couple of hours for a reservation to open up. Flexcar is planning to add more cars to their fleet in the coming weeks; still, it is best to reserve a car as far in advance as possible.

Another drawback is that the reservation system requires members to reserve a car for a predetermined amount of time. Lacking the psychic ability to predict traffic jams or other delays, I find it difficult to know in advance how long I’ll need a car.

Overall, Flexcar’s system works smoothly, but with the occasional hiccup. For example, one time the car wasn’t there when I went to pick it up because the previous driver had returned it late and hadn’t called Flexcar to tell them. Most problems like this can be handled using Flexcar’s phone system, which has an emergency operator on duty 24 hours. I would strongly recommend any Flexcar driver carry a cellphone just in case a problem arises.

While Flexcar does require me to plan my car use, the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages. One recent study found that people who participated in a car-sharing program reduced their automobile usage by 47 percent while increasing their travel via public transit, walking and cycling. I can personally vouch for that study, and that’s a great feeling.

Gene Balk: gbalk@seattletimes.com