Every morning across Europe millions of people get into a car and drive to work. Nearly all of those people drive alone.
In France, all those empty car seats could seat the entire population.
“From an environmental point of view, it’s a catastrophe,” says Nicolas Brusson, chief executive and cofounder of Parisian carpooling company BlaBlaCar. Founded in 2006 the startup has raised over €410m to date, employs over 550 people and broke even in September last year (before launching long-distance bus services).
However, it’s not content with having 80m users of its carpooling app worldwide. It may be almost as synonymous with carpooling as Google is with search, but Blablacar wants to get a whole chunk more people sharing vehicles — this time on their commute.
“If we can manage to convince those 80 million people to use [carpooling] every day when they go to work, we could have a massive impact,” says Brusson.
A whole new customer: the commuter
And so, in April last year, BlaBlaCar launched BlaBlaLines. Unlike its original service, which is mainly used for long, one-off journeys of anything from 50 to 500 miles, BlaBlaLines is for short, regular journeys.
That makes it a much trickier product to get right.
It needs to have lots of drivers and passengers signed up, taking similar routes and at quite precise times. With the BlaBlaCar service, which is often used for weekend trips, there’s a lot more room for flexibility. With commuting, people need to know they’ll get to work on time.
Oddly enough, just who passengers share a vehicle with seems to matter less with BlaBlaLines than with BlaBlaCar. “Talking in the car is a lot more important on BlaBlaCar; it’s a long journey. People pay attention to profile, gender, these kinds of things,” says Brusson. “People are more pragmatic on BlaBlaLines. They spend just 20 or 30 minutes in the car, so are driven a lot more by time and location.”
The new service also needs to be convenient, quick and cheap enough for people to choose not to drive themselves; the ultimate convenience.
“To convince drivers not to drive every time their first experience needs to be very compelling.”
“To convince drivers not to drive every time their first experience needs to be very compelling,” says Brusson. For now, BlaBlaLines is incentivising passengers with free rides, but eventually it will need to be a paid-for service. Drivers receive around €3-6 for each journey, based on the length of the trip.
A new form of public transport?
There’s also a chance that some regional and national governmental organisations will subside rides. “In France, €7bn every year goes to public transport subsidies — [yet] 70% of the population don’t use the metro, light rail or buses because they live in a region where it’s impossible to set them up,” says Brusson. For people in those regions subsidised carpooling might be the most viable form of public transport, he thinks.
“There’s an awareness that the private car will become a solution to private transport one way or another.”
It’s an interesting idea — and one which the French government seems to be taking seriously. The Ile-de-France region in Paris is already subsidising carpool commuting via a partner programme with BlaBlaLines and other partners and a new mobility law that is in the works may help employers subsidise employee carpooling.
“There’s an awareness that the private car will become a solution to private transport one way or another,” adds Brusson.
BlaBlaLines now has 800,000 sign ups and is seeing double-digit growth every month, says Brusson. People are using the service on average 10 times per month, which he thinks is about as often as can be expected.
“It smells pretty good right now in France,” says Brusson. The plan, he says, is to continue testing and tweaking the product in France for the next six to nine months, before expanding to a second market — likely outside of Europe (“something fundamentally different”).
“From a structural point of view, France, Germany and the UK are all fairly similar,” says Brusson. There’s well-organised, mostly well-priced public transport (even if it is patchy outside of big cities). “In Brazil or Mexico or Russia it feels like there’s a bigger hole in terms of transport solutions.”
The BlaBlaCar app has been picked up much faster outside of Europe, says Brusson — and he expects the same might be true for BlaBlaLines.
“If the same people that use BlaBlaCar four times per year use this product 100 times per year that’s El Dorado.”
“BlaBlaLines feels like BlaBlaCar 10 years ago. We’re growing faster, but the market is just humongous. If the same people that use Blablacar four times per year use this product 100 times per year that’s El Dorado.”
“If we can get to the point where we have 10s of millions of people using [Blablalines] 10 times per month, that’s an incredible product. That’s the app next to Spotify, or Facebook.”