The Anti-Uber Way of Disrupting Transportation, Politely

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Taxi drivers during a protest against Uber Technologies Inc.'s car sharing service in London on June 11, 2014. Close

Taxi drivers during a protest against Uber Technologies Inc.'s car sharing service in... Read More

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Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Taxi drivers during a protest against Uber Technologies Inc.'s car sharing service in London on June 11, 2014.

A French ride-sharing startup connects drivers with more than a million people looking for a lift each month, and it's managing to do so without making a bunch of enemies along the way.

Paris-based BlaBlaCar (it sounds better in a French accent) isn't growing at the sort of pedal-to-the-floor pace of Uber's car-booking app, but it's beloved by Europeans who often use it for long hauls and cross-country trips. And BlaBlaCar's brand of organized, digital hitchhiking hasn't faced the kinds of lawsuits, or widespread protests from taxi drivers and city officials encountered by Uber.

People who sign up to drive on BlaBlaCar offer rides to passengers in 12 countries, including France, Germany, Spain and the U.K., at prices that undercut other methods of transportation. In England, a peak-time train ticket from Manchester to London costs as much as 160 pounds ($267), whereas a quick search on the BlaBlaCar app showed the same trip being offered by a dozen different drivers for 12 pounds.

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Like Uber, BlaBlaCar takes a cut of the fare, but crucially, prevents its drivers from trying to turn this into a job. In each of the countries it operates in, BlaBlaCar uses government guidelines on driving costs to set a cap on the fare. These calculations account for fuel costs, insurance and tax. The rule helps to avoid giving the impression that the app poses a challenge to cab drivers' livelihood.

"Because they don't make a profit, BlaBlaCar drivers aren't classed as professionals," says Nicolas Brusson, the co-founder and chief operating officer at BlaBlaCar. "They don't require special insurance or a special license."

BlaBlaCar doesn't try to compete with Uber, Hailo or Lyft — or taxis — within cities. The startup's economic model is designed for long distances and geared toward motorists looking to fill empty seats during journeys they would have been making anyway. BlaBlaCar's price caps mean a driver in London could only ask for a few pounds to ferry someone from the East End to Chelsea, and the would-be passenger is better off heading underground to brave the tube rather than taking the time to arrange the details of the pickup and then sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Whereas Uber and Lyft keep butting heads with regulators, BlaBlaCar's biggest challenge has been convincing passengers to spend several hours locked in a car with a stranger. With the exception of Germany, where ride sharing is more the norm, BlaBlaCar is an unfamiliar proposition. The site aims to put people at ease by encouraging drivers and passengers to rate each other, making their reputations transparent. Each driver is required to specify how chatty they are on a scale of "Bla" to "BlaBlaBla."

With $100 million in funding secured last month, BlaBlaCar is setting its sights on new markets. Brazil, Turkey, India and other parts of Asia are on the company's agenda. Emerging markets, in which transport networks aren't as robust or extensive, are where BlaBlaCar sees some of its greatest opportunities. In Russia, the company says a train journey from Moscow to Sochi takes twice as long and is twice the price of a BlaBlaCar ride.

But one place it won't be pitching up in the near future is the U.S., where a combination of relatively cheap fuel and a tendency to fly make the market unattractive. Earlier this month, Uber and Lyft introduced carpooling features of their own, initially limited to San Francisco. The move marks Lyft's second foray into the market after Zimride, its less successful predecessor.

As BlaBlaCar becomes increasingly global and amasses more money, the startup's gentle image may not last. The company is on course to surpass its target of achieving 12 million users by the end of the year, and with a higher profile, it can expect greater scrutiny.

"The French national rail service and bus companies in Spain have spoken of us as a competitor," Brusson says. "At some point, we'll probably see a reaction from the existing transport networks but not today."

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