Recognizing Excellence in Shaping Communities: Zipcar Cofounder Robin Chase is the 2017 Recipient of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development

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The Nichols Prize honors the legacy of Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding ULI member considered to be one of America’s most creative entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century. Nichols built his signature development, Country Club District, to accommodate what he correctly anticipated would be the future proliferation of automobile owners in urban areas. Chase—the first Nichols Prize laureate whose career has not directly involved real estate practices or policy making—conceived Zipcar in 2000 as a car ownership alternative that would provide easy, convenient, and inexpensive access to vehicles on an as-needed basis.

With its debut, Zipcar disrupted car ownership dependence and the car rental process by allowing urban residents to reserve online, and securely pick up and drop off cars on an hourly basis from unattended parking locations around the city; years later, the process would be further simplified with a smartphone app. The effects and implications of Zipcar rippled quickly through city planning departments, the development industry, and academia, raising questions such as how much and what kind of parking is necessary to satisfy city residents? Starting with one Volkswagen Beetle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the company now offers more than 12,000 vehicles to over 1 million users in 500-plus cities around the globe.

The lasting impacts of Chase’s car-sharing idea on urban design and development are what earned her the Nichols Prize, which is the Institute’s highest honor. She demonstrated how sharing reduces the number of cars used by urban residents as well as the number of parking spaces they need. She also demonstrated that sharing is welcomed by the mainstream of people, and that it has a viable business model. Zipcar set the stage for the rise of the sharing economy, including Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft.

Nichols Prize Jury Chairman Mark W. Johnson, president of Civitas in Denver, noted that the selection of Chase demonstrates a recognition of the influence that visionaries outside the real estate industry are having on the built environment. “It’s important to acknowledge that the issues driving urbanization in America are about more than real estate. Technology is having a big impact on the formation of communities – today we have different communities than we could imagine 10 years ago, because we have technology that allows us to connect with others who share common interests,” Johnson said. “We are seeing new forms of community emerge from the sharing economy. With Zipcar, Robin produced something we all use, but it’s not something we knew we needed until it was introduced to us. Her passion is about innovation, staying ahead of the game, and thinking about things that others are not. In today’s world, we all need that.”

In her 2015 book, Peers Inc, Chase explains the three premises on which Zipcar was based, and which have guided her pursuits since leaving the company in 2003:

  • Leveraging/sharing excess capacity (such as unused cars) makes economic sense;
  • Online technology platforms make sharing simple; and
  • Peer collaboration (such as Zipcar’s system of having users refuel the cars without assistance) ensures the system’s success.

Chase recently spoke with Urban Land magazine, ULI’s flagship publication, sharing her ideas on how the Zipcar business model might be applied to real estate. “If we think about parts of cities we really enjoy, such as streets that are converted to accommodate festivals, we are enjoying spaces that are being multipurposed. It’s interesting to think about this in terms of private as well as public space, such as how the design of a building can allow for more than one use,” she said.

“Consider building lobbies, which are empty most of the time—that’s a prime example of excess capacity. Another example is apartments—we need to be building more apartments that can be expanded or shrunk to accommodate households of different sizes. Or parking—everyone who is including parking in their developments should be building it so it can be reused for something else,” Chase continued. “Zipcar made it possible to ‘buy’ a car for just an hour. In the future, I can imagine rethinking the ‘minimum purchase size’ for retail space and curb space. Instead of paying for parking by the hour, we should be charging by the minute, or five-minute increments, for pickup and drop-off and delivery. Instead of renting a storefront by the year, imagine what it would be like to do so by the day or week. We are seeing this in the hotel and office markets. Retail and parking are ripe for such changes as well. Being flexible with space—building in multipurposing—allows uniquenesses to emerge that distinguish places from each other. That should be a goal for developers, to ensure that they are leaving evolvable space for the people in a community, now and in the future, to localize and make it their own.”

“Robin’s work has led us to think differently about all the space that has been given over to vehicle movement in our cities, to celebrate the efficient transportation networks that we have, and add to them in a very light-impact way,” said jury member Marilyn J. Taylor, professor of architecture and urban design and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in Philadelphia. “She is crystal clear about why vehicles and spaces and every aspect of our life that we can share should be shared, because when we are out and about, we inevitably interact with people who think differently than we do, and that is the way we learn and build community cohesion. Robin intuitively understands that and she has the capacity to bring that forward, which makes for better cities everywhere.” 

After leaving Zipcar, Chase served as the founder and former chief executive officer of Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer car-sharing company; and GoLoco, which enabled ride sharing. She was a cofounder and board member of Veniam, a vehicle communications company that moves massive amounts of data between vehicles and the cloud, allowing buses to act as mini cell towers and enabling the safe and reliable operation of self-driving cars. Her current work includes a focus on maximizing the potential of autonomous cars to improve the quality of life in urban areas.

In addition to Johnson and Taylor, other 2017 Nichols Prize jury members were ULI leaders Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor, School of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; Eric B. Larson, president and chief executive officer, Larson Realty Group, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; and Michael Spies, senior managing director, Tishman Speyer, New York.

About the Urban Land Institute

The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has more than 40,000 members worldwide representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines. For more information, please visit uli.org or follow us on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram

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SOURCE Urban Land Institute

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