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Behind the wheel of an urban mobility revolution

04/07/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Northeastern hosts Zipcar President Kaye Ceille as a speaker for the CEO Breakfast series on April 7, 2016 in Boston. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Zipcar President Kaye Ceille opened her talk Thursday morning with a question to the some 100 business executives and others gathered at Northeastern University’s CEO Breakfast Forum: Have you used Zipcar, or have you used other urban transportation services such as Bridj, Uber, or Lyft?

Nearly every hand in the audience went up. “You are all participating in a revolution in urban mobility,” Ceille said. And it’s only the beginning.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun hosts the CEO Breakfast Forum series, in which CEOs, presidents, and other top business executives share their expertise with audiences of other CEOs and senior executives from the Greater Boston area.

Ceille said the rise of ride sharing, from cars to buses to bicycles, has brought more dynamic urban transportation options to consumers and helped fuel Zipcar’s own growth. Zipcar now counts more than 950,000 members with 12,000 vehicles accessible across over 500 cities and towns in eight countries. Its presence includes more than 540 college campuses and more than 60 airports.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun speaks to Zipcar President Kaye Ceille at the CEO Breakfast Forum on Thursday in Boston. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun speaks with Zipcar President Kaye Ceille at the CEO Breakfast Forum on Thursday in Boston. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Ceille said the key to Zipcar’s success since launching 16 years ago has been sticking to its mission of enabling simple and responsible urban living. Over that time, she said two other things have happened. One is that Zipcar’s car-sharing model has led to more personally owned cars coming off the road. The other is that Zipcar emerged as being at the forefront of the broader sharing economy that now spans everything from transportation and lodging to personal items such as clothing, accessories, and tools.

Ceille was named Zipcar president in January 2014 following 20 years at its parent company, Avis Budget Group. And she’s focused on keeping Zipcar moving forward and well positioned to take advantage of future innovation in the transportation sector. In March the company expanded a program in Los Angeles to bring its members greater flexibility by offering one-way trips, the ability to change destination mid-trip, and the power to extend reservations indefinitely. The program first launched in late 2014 as a one-way beta-test here in Boston.

The next phase of the urban mobility revolution, Ceille said, is already on the horizon: self-driving cars, which she envisions bringing a transformative change to Zipcar’s business model. No longer would customers have to walk to pick up their vehicles and then park them at their destinations. Instead, the cars will pick up and drop off riders wherever they want. What’s more, the Zipcar could then just drive a block away and pick up the next member who needs a lift.

“That’s exciting to me,” she said. “That creates a very efficient system. What you see today is a lot of people and cars descending upon a city. Drivers are driving around waiting for riders, and riders are waiting for drivers. That’s not as efficient as it needs to be.”

During an engaging Q&A, Ceille fielded a range of questions on topics from the company’s growth—Zipcar has entered 200 new zip codes in each of past two years—to whether services such as Uber have cut into Zipcar’s business. On the latter question, Ceille noted that its members’ average length of trip is about four hours, often to go shopping or visit family, while Uber and Lyft riders are typically making shorter trips for different purposes.

Aoun asked Ceille several questions, including what she looks for in prospective hires. Ceille pointed to learning agility, business acumen, a passion to succeed, and a strong belief in Zipcar’s mission. Aoun also asked whether the company defines success as shifting people from being car owners to car sharers.

“Our vision is (having) a world where there are more car-share members than there are car owners,” Ceille responded. “As we sit here today we’re closer and closer than ever.”

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