South Florida’s sprawling development and limited public transportation make owning a car pretty much a necessity.

But a growing number of services are popping up in South Florida giving people quick, cheap access to cars whether they’re lacking one of their own or need an extra set of wheels for a quick trip to Home Depot.

It’s called car sharing, a concept that’s been around in the United States since the 1980s, but has been experiencing significant growth nationally since 2006. In the past year, the concept has gained a foothold in South Florida.

Driving the surge are efforts to promote alternative transportation, a growing lack of interest in car ownership among young people and a tough economy forcing some people to look for a way to get around without a car.

“Initially, it was popular among younger, trendy, relatively educated individuals in urban locations,” said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Since then, it has expanded in popularity to members of college and university campuses and other users seeking to reduce their auto ownership and their dependency on a personal vehicle.”

Between July 2011 and July 2012, car-sharing membership in the U.S. increased about 44 percent, according to the Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

In June 2012, West Palm Beach partnered with South Florida Commuter Services a state agency that promotes alternative transportation, to start a car-sharing service in downtown West Palm Beach. A Toyota Prius parked at one of the city’s parking garages is available around-the-clock for rental by residents and commuters who sign up to use it. So far, 50 people have registered for the service.

In January 2012, Miami Beach teamed up with Hertz On Demand for a car-sharing service that put 20 vehicles in eight of the city’s parking garages.

Hertz is rolling out its car-sharing service to other parts of the region, with vehicles available in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Pompano Beach, Coral Springs, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. Between March 2012 and March 2013, South Florida membership in Hertz’s car-sharing service grew 160 percent, said Paula Rivera, manager of public affairs for The Hertz Corporation. The company has several thousand members in the area.

Zipcar, another car-sharing service that originated on college campuses, also is venturing into the region. In November, it expanded its service into Miami, offering 40 vehicles throughout the city. It recently debuted at Palm Beach International Airport.

Plus, South Florida residents are taking advantage of a peer-to-peer car-sharing service called RelayRides, which allows people to rent out their personal vehicles to people who need a car.

“It’s a great concept,” said Kent Wilmering, a West Palm Beach businessman about the WeCar service in downtown West Palm Beach. “I’m the rare breed of business professional who rides the bus.”

He also walks and bikes to work. But he occasionally needs a car to pick people up at the airport or to haul supplies from Home Depot. He has his own two-seater that he rarely drives. But he prefers the Prius because its sips fuel, and he’s no fan of the oil industry.

“It’s like a mini pick-up truck for me,” Wilmering said. “If you live downtown, there is no reason to own a car.”

To participate in a car-sharing service, people sign up to become members. Some companies charge an annual fee for the membership while others don’t. Members receive a membership card that unlocks and locks the rented vehicles, which are conveniently located to allow easy access.

Reservations for the vehicles are made online, and vehicles can be rented hourly or by the day.

To some degree, South Florida cities are driving the growing popularity of car sharing. Downtowns struggling with congestion and not enough parking see car sharing as a way to encourage people to give up their cars and use alternative transportation.

“People many times … say the reason they don’t take the bus, train or carpool is because they need their vehicle during the day,” said Jim Udvardy, project director for South Florida Commuter Services.

With car sharing, people always have access to a car.

Later this year, the commuter service hopes to expand car sharing to other parts of Palm Beach County by setting them up at major employment centers. It’s in the midst of setting up a pilot program where employees who use alternative transportation to get to work would get 10 free hours to rent a car-share vehicle to run errands or got to meetings.

The vehicle also would be available for $10 an hour to other customers. If successful in Palm Beach, the agency will move the program to Broward County.

People who jump on the car-sharing bandwagon can thank younger people who first balked at the cost of owning a car.

“One of the reasons car sharing became popular among young people was that vehicle ownership was, in part, perceived as a burden and costly,” Shaheen wrote in an email.

According to AAA, the average cost to own and operate a car is $9,122 a year based on 15,000 miles of driving.

For young people, spending about $100 a month on a smart phone is more appealing than a car payment, said Steven Webb, RelayRides’ director of communications.

“You’re not going to be able to afford both of those payments,” he said. “More and more young people are moving to urban areas. They want public transportation. They want convenience.”

David Salinas, 25, of Tamarac, began renting out his 2000 Toyota Echo through RelayRides in October. He had planned on selling the car since he was upgrading to an SUV for his growing family. But he figured he’d get more cash if he rented it out.

So far, he’s made about $1,500. He has mostly rented to tourists, who are seeking a bargain on car rentals. But he also rented to a guy who was getting his car repaired. And he rented out his SUV to a lady who needed to pick up her family from the airport.

“At first when you think about renting out your stuff, you think the worst could happen,” he said. “The risk was really small.”

RelayRides provides insurance coverage for both the owner and renter. Plus, it screens renters to make sure they have clean driving histories.

This increased car sharing has had an impact on ownership, Shaheen said. Their research showed a reduction of nine to 13 vehicles for every car-sharing vehicle and a 27 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

Car sharing in South Florida

A number of car sharing services are popping up in South Florida. Here are a few:

Photo Credit: In Florida, Zipcar recently expanded into Miami, and is also available at Palm Beach International Airport. Robert Galbraith / Reuters