Catching a Ride

7 October 2015 - // Features

As sharing gains momentum in the field of transport, there is no lack of bright ideas aimed at encouraging the public to reassess their travel habits and adopt different approaches.

Sharing’ is an open-ended concept whose iterations include collectively owned property used by a network or community, private property put at the disposition of friends and strangers, different groups using pieces of public space according to their particular needs, and so on. When it comes to travel and transport, ride sharing – a safer and more sophisticated form of hitchhiking – is one approach that is certainly gaining appeal across Europe. Indeed, the number of online services that put private car drivers and riders in contact has grown considerably over recent years. Factors encouraging their popularity are wide and varied – fuel prices, traffic congestion, the prohibitive costs of owning and running a car, of finding and paying for parking spaces, plus the rise of the internet, mobile applications and social media.

Car sharing. Photo: David Lefevre/ BlaBlaCar

Pooling Resources

In operation for 17 years, might well qualify as one of the oldest ride sharing schemes around. Its managing director, Ali Clabburn, was so inspired by a trip he took to Germany as an 18-year-old – where ride sharing was his bread and butter for traveling around the country – that he posted a sign on the notice board at his student union upon his return to England, trying to see if there were others like him interested in pooling their resources. Mr. Clabburn reports that his teenage self was “amazed” by what he saw in Germany – drivers willing to offer rides to strangers – and shocked that there was nothing like it in the U.K. at the time. One year later, in 1998, the first Liftshare website went live. “That makes us two weeks older than Google,” he points out.

The present-day Liftshare, which has gone international in Australia and the USA), targets two types of users: individuals and companies. After creating a user profile, the former are then free to advertise their willingness to share a ride, or their desire to ride along. Anyone can register: having a car is not required, with the website remarking simply that it is the rider’s duty to share costs. Beyond cars, users can also search for people with whom to share taxis, bike rides, even walks. As for businesses, they can create a restricted network just for their employees, or open up to the full Liftshare network. “Companies are trying to make it possible for their staff to travel more affordably,” explains Mr. Clabburn, “and to reduce the need for parking.”

Ratings & Savings

The online testimonials posted by smiling sharers (reviews and ratings are common ground and a fundamental part of sharing economy platforms of any kind these days), highlight the social aspect of Liftshare. Nevertheless, Mr. Clabburn recognizes that “individuals are primarily interested because they think they can save money” – adding that, in fact, they do!

Main page of UK’s largest car share community. Photo: liftshare

“The cost of fuel makes the case for car-sharing overwhelming,” says a testimonial posted by U.K. Liftsharer Norman. “I estimate my carpool keeps about £150 (€213) a month in my pocket that would otherwise glug down my filter cap. At typical levels of taxation, that’s the equivalent to a salary rise of £2,500 (€3,550).”

Playing  to Both Sides

Liftshare is officially a non-profit organization. “We’re primarily about social innovation,” declares Mr. Clabburn; “we were set up to solve a problem.” And, as the founder learned, once the hunt for profits is cast aside, the service becomes that much more attractive to potential users. In the early days, users were charged a £10 (€12.43)/year fee; five people signed up. When the fee was reduced to £5 (€6.21) annually, membership doubled. And when the founders decided that membership would be free, more than 50 people joined.

Playing to both sides – engaging the ‘common man’ and the corporation – is likely what has made Liftshare a success.

In reality, the free individual memberships are supported by corporate membership fees. “We have to work harder than a non-profit or a regular business, because we are playing to both sides.” In essence, the outreach to individuals involves, first and foremost, making people aware that sharing exists as an option. “Ride-sharing isn’t sexy,” admits Mr. Clabburn. “People don’t come into the office wearing Lycra, like cyclists.” On the business side, the challenge is even more present, since big decision-makers are not often car-sharers: “It’s not the same profile,” as Mr. Clabburn puts it. However, Liftshare has succeeded in attracting some of the biggest corporates in the U.K. to their cause – like Heathrow Airport, BSkyB, or Scottish Power, for example, which makes it easier for others to follow suit.

Blablacar – Biggest in the Business

Present in 19 countries across Europe and Asia, and with 20 million members, BlaBlaCar is the biggest player on the European ride sharing scene today. And its origins, born out of a need unfulfilled, are not dissimilar to those of Liftshare. One Christmas, founder Frédéric Mazzella, a student at the time, wanted to get home to his family in the French countryside. He had no car. The trains were full. The roads, too, were full of people driving home, alone in their car. It occurred to him that he should try and find one of the drivers going his way and offer to share petrol costs in exchange for use of an empty seat. He thought he could do it online, but no such site existed… And so, in 2006 the (ad)venture began!

To find a ride, or for drivers offering empty seats, users go to the website, sign up, then enter their departure/arrival points plus travel date. Seats are reserved via secure credit/debit card payment, with the rider receiving a booking code as confirmation. Phone numbers are exchanged to arrange the final details. Trust and safety are guaranteed by means of a system whereby drivers and riders alike are given ratings online after the trip. An added safety feature is the ‘Ladies Only’ service, which allows members, if they prefer, to plan a car share where both drivers and all passengers are women.

BlaBlaCar’s main page. Photo: BlaBlaCar

To secure its spot as Europe’s leading city-to-city car-sharing service, in April 2015, the company bought one of its biggest rivals in Germany,, as well as Hungary-based Autohop.

Uber – Sign  of the Times

Uber, the San Francisco-based, ride sharing company launched in 2009 and now present in 59 countries worldwide, is not having an easy ride in Europe. Firstly, it’s important to point out that unlike Liftshare and BlablaCar, Uber is designed for travel within cities, with its mobile app enabling people to ‘hail a ride’ with the driver of a private car instead of an official cab. But in a number of cities, of which Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid and Milan, taxi drivers are not taking this head-on challenge to their established business lightly. Their complaint being that these ‘freelancer” Uber drivers are not properly regulated, don’t pay the same amount of taxes, and are basically ‘enticing’ customers away.

User interface of Uber. Photo: Uber

Given that Uber is not a transport company but a technology start-up, the furore over its modus operandi is a real sign of the times – new technologies disrupting traditional business models. However, while the authorities in countries across Europe have yet to decide how to handle this controversial start-up, the traveling and paying public appear to be in favor: following the violent anti-Uber demonstrations in France this June 2015, comments posted by the public on the web, Facebook and Twitter showed little sympathy for the furious taxi industry! Given that their drivers, in France, have a reputation for being unfriendly and for overcharging, how can customers be expected not to welcome the arrival of an alternative?

Sharing… Caring?

For those without cars – nearly 58% of Europe’s population, according to statistics by Eurostat – ride-sharing can indeed be a solution when more established travel modes simply don’t fit into the practical, social, or financial plan. And long distance services like Liftshare and BlaBlaCar have definitely encroached on traditional transport modes such as rail. How do we know? Because a number of train operators have come up with offers, notably group travel discounts, to encourage the public to stick to the tracks for these journeys. French Railways (SNCF) in particular, appears very anxious to protect its business. In 2013, by purchasing ride sharing site the company gained a foothold in what it obviously sees as both a developing and rival market. 

Flexibility, seamless mobility, saving money and time… the factors driving the uptake of ride sharing are numerous. And meanwhile, there is a growing awareness that our reliance on single-occupancy vehicles is no longer valid in a world where urban space is at a premium, fuel and time are precious, and where the environmental impacts of our transport activities are becoming increasingly obvious. As transport become more sharing-oriented, does this herald the dawn of a more caring society? Only time will tell…

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