While it has largely gone under the radar in the English-speaking world, long distance ride-sharing is booming. Online services that put drivers and travelers in touch to share the costs of inter-city journeys have been popular in continental Europe for several years and are now growing quickly in emerging markets including Russia and India.
The only clear exceptions are the U.S.—where market leaders Bla Bla Car are yet to launch—and the U.K., which has once again shocked observers by turning its back on a European collaborative project.
Bla Bla Car, the Paris-based long distance ride-sharing service, has grown exponentially since its launch in 2006, consuming several rivals and accruing more than 30 million members in the 22 countries where it is operational. Unlike Uber and other ride-hailing apps, Bla Bla Car focuses exclusively on long distance journeys and all drivers are non-professionals and, importantly, limited in the amount they can charge. The company claims that price controls keep fares low and mean drivers can cover costs, but not make a profit from taking passengers.
Nicolas Brusson, Bla Bla Car co-founder and COO, told Motherboard that the model can work almost anywhere. When looking to expand they identify countries where the cost of driving is relatively high, people travel frequently between cities and "sharing economy" services such as Airbnb are already popular.
"Frankly most countries in the world fit that description" he told Motherboard. "The only exception really is the US, where the cost [of driving] is still pretty low. And it's a high disposable income country and petrol is pretty cheap."
According to Brusson, the model has huge potential both in continental Europe, where ride-sharing acts as a disruptor, providing a cheaper or easier alternative to already developed public transport, and emerging markets, where carpooling services can create new transport networks in lieu of good bus or train networks.
"There aren't many countries where this thing doesn't work," he said. "Out of the 22 countries where we have launched, the only one where we have had a bit of a surprise is the U.K."
So, not for the first time in recent weeks, we must ask ourselves, 'what is going on in the UK?' Public transport is certainly expensive enough to make alternatives attractive. To give one example, traveling the 250-odd miles between Manchester and Brighton would cost $135 one way on the train if you buy your tickets the same day and go during off-peak hours (or only $369 if you decide to treat yourself to going First Class). Taking the same journey through Bla Bla Car, in comparison, could usually costs between $32 and $40.
Rob Vaughan, an economist with PriceWaterHouseCooper, who has produced several reports on the sharing economy, said that while there are some geographic and economic reasons why long distance ride-sharing has been slower to take off in the U.K., the main factor may be attitudes to sharing resources.
"I think the key factor is a cultural one—simply put, individuals [in continental Europe] are more comfortable sharing space in their car, building on the more collaborative and community-orientated neighbourhoods that are more typical," Vaughan told Motherboard.
For Brusson, the cultural argument holds little water. He says that in all the countries where Bla Bla Car has launched, with the possible exception of Germany, the vast majority of users have never hitchhiked and have probably not shared rides with strangers before using the service. In fact, a large part of the challenge is finding out what works best to build trust enough for people to get into a stranger's car.
"I don't think it's a behavioural thing in terms of wanting to share, because what is interesting is you have people booking rides, just not offering rides," he said. "We don't have a shortage of people wanting a seat in a car, we have a shortage of people offering seats in a car."
Brusson says the company's research has found that the British are uniquely anxious about their car insurance, fretting that taking a passenger may void their coverage—a fear he says is unfounded, given that carpooling is not a for-profit activity.
Whatever the causes, the lack of rides available in the U.K. could limit growth for now, but long distance ride-sharing has shown plenty of potential in emerging economies in Asia and Latin America.