By Thibault Worth
In Europe, where gasoline and car ownership cost a pound of flesh, carpooling services have exploded in popularity during the economic downturn.
Over 1 million users currently book transportation on Carpooling.com, the Munich-based ride sharing service, which claims to be the world’s largest. France’s BlaBlaCar, the number two, claims 500,000 users each month. (By contrast, Zimride, the largest rideshare service in the U.S., books 20,000 riders per month).
The spike in popularity in Europe has solved a historical problem with ride share services: a lack of critical mass. Today, a passenger is more likely to find the ride she wants, when she wants. The ever-improving success rate has attracted more and more users.
So what’s next? Could Internet-facilitated ride sharing spawn a revolution in the way Europeans, and eventually the world, use cars to get around? That answer is yes, according to Carpooling CEO Markus Barnikel.
“The creation of multimodal platforms that intelligently integrate public transport, commercial carriers and peer-to-peer services represents the future of travel,” he wrote in a recent blog post about trends in 2013.
The Holy Grail for ride sharing would be a service that generates itineraries between any two points using whatever modes of transport available. E-tickets would be issued electronically for each leg, including carpooling segments.
But the challenges in implementing such a system are monumental. And whether the system would even function well, debatable.
Though Carpooling and BlaBlaCar already claim to be multi-modal, users can only book rides on one mode of transport at a time. Odile Beniflah, a Senior Product Manager at Carpooling, says that hasn't stopped motivated users from manually creating complex multi-modal itineraries, one leg at a time.
“Do you realize how hard it was to convince Deutsche Bahn and Air Berlin to share their timetable data,” Beniflah ribbed when I pointed out that that's not truly multi-modal.
It’s not just a question of sharing data. Beniflah says it's been a challenge adapting timetables from airline, train, and bus companies into a format usable by Carpooling’s platform. But these technical hurdles belie a deeper question of whether ride sharing can pair well with traditional modes of transport to begin with.
To establish trust and credibility with its users, Carpooling and BlaBlaCar have developed intricate user profiles and feedback systems. But relying on a stranger to get you to the train station or airport on time requires another level of trust entirely.
Throw in different cultural relationships to time in Europe, and things can quickly get dicey—a point Beniflah concedes herself.
“Think of the reliability of train schedules in Italy,” says Beniflah. “Are they reliable enough that we can book a trip from A to B using carpool and train?”
Ride sharing services will also have to figure out what to do with multi-modal itineraries when an accident or delay disrupts downstream connections.
These are heady questions for relatively small startups on a mission to revolutionize transportation. Fortunately, the EU has come out in support of better data sharing between platforms. In a recent report, an expert group called for both national and European-level data standards to ensure a “complete set of mobility solutions between different modes of transport.”
But the support has yet to evolve beyond standard setting.
“At this stage, we have not received any funding from the EU to build a multi-modal platform,” BlaBlaCar co-founder Nicolas Brusson told Shareable.net. But in a boon for Carpooling this year, Germany deregulated its bus companies, a move that will allow the aggregator to sell domestic bus tickets for the first time.
It still won't be multi-modal transport. But with the very viability of European Union called into question in recent years, it's nice to see ride sharing connecting the continent together, one ride at a time.