Zipcar quietly leaves Huntsville as alternative transit plans develop throughout city

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Zipcar, the vehicle-sharing company that launched in Huntsville to much fanfare in March 2016, confirms it has quietly phased out its presence in the Huntsville area.

The company placed a fleet of vehicles throughout downtown and the Village of Providence.

WHNT News 19 learned that Zipcar, after reducing its Huntsville fleet earlier this year, has now left the market.

A Zipcar spokeswoman tells us the vehicles were not being used much, which contributed to the company's vacation of Huntsville.

She wrote in an email to WHNT News 19:

As a mission-driven company, Zipcar seeks to reduce personal car ownership by providing access to shared vehicles. When the demand and utilization of these vehicles doesn’t meet a certain threshold, we adjust accordingly to ensure we’re fulfilling our purpose.

While there was significant excitement when we first launched in Huntsville in March 2016, the vehicles were not reserved as often as expected and thus weren’t reducing the use of personal vehicles, traffic and parking demand.

The six Zipcars parked in city-owned spots were removed as of February 2016, and the two vehicles located at The Village of Providence were removed as of May 2017.

Zipcar continues to have a presence at the University of Alabama, where we launched in 2009 with five vehicles and the University of Alabama, Birmingham, where we recently launched in September 2017 with two vehicles.

We turned to Huntsville transportation and planning leaders about this move, and what it might say about alternative transportation in Huntsville.

"One of the unique things about Huntsville-- and it's not a bad thing, it's a good thing-- is that Huntsville is a very car-dependent city. The percentage of cars per capita is high. So that creates quite a struggle for a company like Zipcar," noted Tommy Brown, Director of Parking and Public Transportation for the city of Huntsville.

He added that rental car businesses do very well in Huntsville, which may have also competed with Zipcar.

"A lot of people come in traveling with the government and they rent cars through the airport, so they have cars through the week," he explained.

Dennis Madsen, Manager of Urban and Long-Range Planning, said it is possible that Huntsville wasn't quite ready for Zipcar. He believes it may have been too early for the company to take up residency in the Rocket City.

"We're still in the early phases of redevelopment. Even downtown you're getting a lot of that growth. It's very early," he noted.

That is why the thought is that Zipcar may return, once Huntsville has had a chance to complete the expected growth. More and more apartments, restaurants, and businesses are planned downtown.

"They certainly believe that they will be back in Huntsville, particularly when we reach the number of people in the downtown area, the population density, that makes more sense," Brown predicted.

"We are seeing the demand slowly expand," Madsen said.

But the city has a lot more going on in terms of transit. As Zipcar quietly departs, Uber and Lyft are still operating in the city as ride-sharing services. Taxis continue to have a presence, along with city shuttles and Handi-Ride.

There is more where that came from.

Biking Downtown

The city is executing an effort to be more friendly to bicycles, even as bike-sharing services are increasing interest in Huntsville.

"I think Zagster, the bike-share company that's downtown, has been incredibly happy with the use of it. Which is something I think a lot of people might have been skeptical about because we don't necessarily have the greatest bike facilities downtown or throughout Huntsville yet," Madsen admitted.

"We've actually been pinged by other bike-share companies who are not yet on the ground in Huntsville saying, 'Hey, can we get in on that game as well?' They are starting to see the demand," he explained.

That, along with citizen feedback, is a big reason why Huntsville construction crews are now working on a bike lane along Spragins Street. At a public meeting about the idea last August, Madsen told cyclists that he wants them to have a safe place to ride downtown and this is the first step.

Now, that bike lane is starting to take shape. The curb is up to separate the bike lane from the road, and then there will be breakaway posts along it to create more visibility. Then striping comes next to denote bike traffic. Crews are also adding bike signals.

"We will actually have designated signals that will flash for bikes before traffic starts moving," Madsen said. "All this is designed to work together and make for a safe environment. We still anticipate getting done before the end of the year."

The bike lane on Spragins Street is a pilot for how bike lanes can fit into the rest of the city.

The Future of Transit in Huntsville

Alternative transportation continues to be on the mind for planners and transportation officials, who are doing studies and research into what should come next for Huntsville.

One such transportation study begins in the spring.

"We are going to look at Saturday bus service," Brown said. "We are excited about that. It will evaluate potential additional bus routes we might operate."

Others are on specific corridors in Huntsville. Madsen has identified Holmes Avenue as an important one to the future of the downtown area.

"We are actively looking at how that gets reconfigured as a multimodal corridor," he said. "We could see another pilot there, where this would become more like a bus/rapid transit corridor. It would function more like a trolley system with separated fare gates where you pay in advance, folks get on, folks get off, and off it goes again. Really, what the future of transportation looks like in Huntsville," he explained.

He said overall, the rest of the area should also do a better job of accommodating bikes, pedestrians, and cars, too.

He mentioned other corridors like Meridian Street and Bailey Cove Road.

Overall, Madsen said demand will increase for other transportation besides cars. Huntsville needs to rise to meet it.

"When you see the private sector start providing alternative transportation options, you know there is demand out there. We know there is nascent demand out there that we know we could do a better job serving, but we know we also have to be fiscally responsible about how you deliver it. So a lot of this is making sure we study our roots, where we have clusters of people who live and would need to access service. And how can we build a network that will be flexible?" Madsen outlined.

As these plans continue to be on the mind, Brown said Zipcar's departure (and hopeful eventual return) is another piece of the puzzle. One the city was happy to have but is also moving past as it looks to the future.

"I don't think the success of Zipcar is indicative of the potential success of public transportation in general in Huntsville," Brown explained.