After receiving its third red Toyota Prius hybrid this week, Ashland's new CarShare program is in gear and shooting for a membership of more than 50 by the end of April.

After receiving its third red Toyota Prius hybrid this week, Ashland's new CarShare program is in gear and shooting for a membership of more than 50 by the end of April.

Mayor John Stromberg took his first trip in one of the flashy but quiet vehicles, as he talked with CarShare Executive Director Becky Brown about the possibility of getting the city signed up for one of the cars — and, if it works, maybe more.

"When you own a car and it's just sitting there, you're wasting money," said Stromberg. "We're just not conscious how much the investment in a private car is costing us. CarShare uses it a much bigger percentage of the time, so it pays for itself."

If the program proves itself, the city might look into subsidizing CarShare for low-income families, a step toward affordable living for workforce residents, said Stromberg.

With a $35,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation, passed through the Rogue Valley Transportation District, CarShare bought its first Prius in December and has worked since then to get its online reservation system running. The first rental was earlier this month.

CarShare has signed up eight members so far and expects that the presence of the cars, bearing big CarShare logos and positioned in visible lots in the middle and at each end of town, will convince drivers of the system's affordability and availability, said Brown.

As he piloted the Prius on a tour of new businesses opening in mid-recession in the heart of Ashland — a wine bar and three restaurants on the Plaza, and a veterinarian on A Street — Stromberg marveled at the personalized key fob that would unlock and awaken the car's systems (and begin charging his credit card) and display when the car switches back and forth between gas and electric.

Pointing to the Subaru Outback he drove to the CarShare spot at Safeway, Stromberg joked, "I'm not illuminated yet, but I'm getting there!"

Brown acknowledged the loyalty drivers have to their personally owned vehicle, adding that a consultant in the CarShare movement advised getting as many cars as possible early on, "because people have to see it to believe it, otherwise they'll say, 'Well, CarShare is fine, but a car will never be there when I want it.'"

Drivers can join CarShare online at www.ashlandcarshare.org and reserve a vehicle at the same Web site. Drivers with Blackberries, iPhones or other handheld Internet-accessible devices can walk up to a car, find out if it's available and, if it is, reserve it, swipe their fob and take right off, said Brown.

The CarShare system is intended to reduce fuel use, carbon emissions, resource use, traffic and parking spaces, while being more economical. One well-used CarShare vehicle, Brown noted, can get 20 to 40 private vehicles off the road.

Southern Oregon University student Elizabeth Churchill sold her Prius to join CarShare, noting that she loves to walk and ride the bus (using her CarShare pass).

"I want to support the organization because I want people to share cars and resources and for society to move in that direction," said Churchill. "It's more economical, especially if you don't drive all the time."

The CarShare Web site says sharing is just as convenient as ownership, once you get used to walking, biking or busing to the site — and you say goodbye to the average cost of owning a car, about $8,000 a year or $18 an hour of use.

"It feels really great. I feel free," said Churchill. "I've traveled abroad a lot and used public transportation and it was a happy and fun time. This is like that."