Image: Flickr CC jmayzurk
PARIS — Carpooling websites are experiencing a boom in popularity in Europe as commuters, fed up with rail strikes and as concerned about their pocketbooks as their carbon footprints, seek alternative methods of getting from Point A to Point B.
In France, the popular site Covoiturage.fr has emerged as the dominant market force, seeing its membership more than double in the last two years. The site was founded in 2004 by Frederic Mazzella, a Stanford University graduate who had been impressed by both the carpool lanes and the pioneering startup spirit of the San Francisco Bay Area. His site, initially popular primarily among students and old-school hitchhikers, has 750,000 registered members and receives 12 million page views a month, accounting for 85 percent of the French carpooling market.
“For the first four years nothing happened,” he says from the office 15 employees share with other tech startups in the quiet, residential north-west of Paris. “People characterized us as hitchhiking on the web, which is seen as dangerous, because its free and anonymous.”
Covoiturage.fr is free to use, but passengers pay drivers for their seat in the car. The site is essentially a hybrid — a search engine to find a lift and a social network where members can provide feedback, post reviews and rate drivers.
Drivers register personal and contact details, and icons indicate if they’re chatty, listen to the radio, smoke or have space for bags. If you can’t find a “match” you can place an ad looking for a lift. Routes are mapped out using Google Maps. Price is determined by a simple formula: gas money plus any tolls divided by the number of passengers. A journey of 350 kilometers (217 miles) on average comes to about €20. ($27.86)
The idea took off in France for a number of reasons.
“French people are used to traveling without their cars, we take trains a lot,” Mazella explains.
But France also is famous for its seemingly constant rail-strikes. Carpooling provides a last minute solution to the shutdowns. The travel nightmares prompted by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull earlier this year, not to mention rising fuel prices, also have made carpooling more popular. But it was Mazzella’s emphasis on creating a social network on the site that led to it fighting off rivals to corner the market.
“Before you could find car-pooling websites but they looked like an Excel file. We think of ourselves as Lastminute.com plus Facebook,” Mazzella says.
The site is in constant contact with members, who suggest improvements and additions.
“When several users suggest adding the same feature, we do,” Mazzella says.
In 2009 the site launched a smartphone app that now accounts for 10 percent of its traffic. The app enables geo-localization (via Google Maps), allows users to call drivers directly and sends push-alerts when a ride becomes available.
“If the website is last minute, the app is last second,” Mazzella says of the travel opportunities it affords.
For the moment the site makes money by providing white-label carpooling platforms to companies using the SAS model. When a company wants to start a carpooling initiative for their employees, Covoiturage builds the website for it.
“If you want to grow quickly you have to be free, so its a nice back-door business model for us,” says Mazzella.
The site has also received €1.25 million ($1,741,781) from ISAI, a start-up fund made up of 60 successful French web-entrepreneurs which was founded by Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet, who sold his Priceminister website to Rakuten for €200 million ($278,721,709). It was the fund’s very first investment, an impressive declaration of belief in the viability of car-pooling. “We’re very proud,” beams Mazzella.
The French government has taken notice of the site’s success, and this year 17 September was designated France’s first ever car-pooling day. They expect to register their 1 millionth user by January 2011.