On June 1, Times 24, the company that operates all those parking lots, launched its ambitious Times Plus car-sharing service. So far, car sharing has been an endeavor limited to local governments and non-profit organizations. Times Plus takes it to a whole new practical level.
Unlike traditional automobile rentals, car sharing is mainly for people with short-term needs. The cars made available by Times Plus are rented in 15-minute blocks of time rather than the usual half-day or full day blocks. They offer two types of cars, “basic” (Demio, Move, Prius, etc.) and, starting in July, “premium” (BMW, Audi, Fiat, etc.). The basic fee is ¥200 for 15 minutes and premium is ¥400 for 15 minutes, which includes everything, even insurance and gasoline. There are also “pack” plans for certain times: “early night packs” (6 p.m. to midnight) or “late night packs” (midnight to 9 a.m.) at ¥1,500 each plus mileage fees, and “double night packs” (6 p.m. to 9 a.m.) at ¥2,000 plus mileage fees.
The real benefit of Times Plus is its convenience: No personnel to deal with, no forms to fill out. You can reserve a car through your PC or cell phone. Then all you do is go to the designated parking lot at your registered time and find the car you selected. Using your special members card you unlock the door, retrieve the keys from the glove box, and just start driving. If you need gas, there are cards in the visor that allow you to purchase gas at either Eneos or Idemitsu gas stations and charge it to Times Plus.
To obtain a member’s card you pay a registration fee of ¥1,500. Membership fees are ¥1,000 a month, but monthly fees are waived for registered students and companies. However, if you do pay a monthly fee and you borrow a Demio, the first 75 minutes of your rental is free. When you return the car, you simply lock it. At the end of the month, your designated credit card is billed.
The advantage of the system is the Times 24 network, which is already nationwide and ubiquitous. The company started as a realtor in 1973 and in 1985 went into the parking lot business, soliciting property owners whose land was not being used. Basically, the property owners became franchisees. Times 24 would install parking devices on the land and pay the property owner a percentage of the revenues. When the bottom fell out of the property market after the bubble era, Times 24 cleaned up because a lot of land owners didn’t know what to do with their property while they waited for it to increase in value so they could sell it. The thing is, Times 24 parking lots are everywhere, which means Times Plus car sharing is everywhere as well.
There are certain drawbacks to the Times Plus system. You have to return the car to its original parking lot, and penalties apply if you drive outside a certain zone or continue using the car after your reserved time. But those conditions apply to rental cars, too. And speaking of rental cars, Times Plus members get a 20 percent discount at Mazda Rentacar, which seems to be a partner in the new endeavor.