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Zipcar looks toward Europe

Cambridge firm also to broaden its demographic

After nearly seven years of getting strangers to share cars for a few hours at a time, Zipcar Inc. believes it has the know-how to leap beyond its customer base of tech-savvy twenty- and thirtysomethings in big US cities.

The car-sharing service plans to disclose today that it's revamping its reservation and fleet management systems -- moves Zipcar is taking to support expansion into Europe and other markets beyond the 13 states and Canadian provinces where it now operates.

It's also increasingly stationing cars outside cities' dense centers, hoping to reach prospective customers on the periphery.

"This is all about mainstreaming," Scott Griffith, chief executive of Cambridge-based Zipcar, said in an interview.

Car-sharing remains a niche phenomenon in a country with more than 200 million vehicles. The company counts 85,000 members who pay fees starting at $7.50 per hour and $56 per day to book vehicles ranging from Mini Coopers to sport utility vehicles parked in urban neighborhoods.

The company's only sizable rival, Seattle-based Flexcar, has at least 35,000 members -- the company last year stopped disclosing membership growth figures.

Zipcar's demographic is hardly middle America. More than 90 percent of members have college degrees. Two-thirds are aged 21 to 35, although Zipcar says its demographic is expanding to include more middle-aged customers.

The company's goal is to attract drivers who may not be tech-savvy, but who are receptive to Zipcar as gas and parking costs rise and environmental concerns surrounding car ownership grow.

To accomplish that, Zipcar has recently invested $500,000 in an online reservation system and an upgraded data network. The reservation process is designed to be simpler, requiring just a few mouse clicks on a single Web browser window to book a car. Zipcar members can also reserve a vehicle over the phone.

With 2,500 vehicles, the privately held company is now in San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Minneapolis, and Ann Arbor, Mich., after starting out in Boston, New York, and Washington. It's also available on about 30 US college campuses.

Late last year, Zipcar moved into London, an entry point for eventual expansion elsewhere in Europe -- where it will face challenges, said Thilo Koslowski, an auto industry analyst with Gartner Inc. "People there are used to public transit," he said. "The value proposition of car-sharing has to be extremely high to succeed against the transportation options they already have."

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