Car-Sharing Services Take Paris by Storm

Car-Sharing Services Take Paris by Storm
Autolib electric Bluecars at the launch in Paris on Dec. 5, 2011
Photograph by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

Walk down one of the narrow streets of Paris and there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon one of the world’s most sophisticated car-sharing networks. The Autolib electric car system—marked by the tiny, boxy electric Bluecars and the neon-hued car chargers—is run by a public-private partnership and has some 65,000 users, with a goal to have 3,000 cars available this year.

But Autolib isn’t even the biggest car-sharing network in Paris. That would be upstart Drivy, which has around 10,000 cars and 115,000 users, according to founder and Chief Executive Officer Paulin Dementhon. The three-year-old Autolib, like its American peers Getaround and RelayRides, has created a platform that enables car owners to rent out their own cars to local drivers.

Drivy is one of an estimated nine car-sharing companies operating in Paris. The competition has gotten fierce enough that recently, one competitor (Buzzcar) bought another (CityzenCar). Buzzcar, which has more than 50,000 users who share 7,000 cars, was started by Zipcar founder Robin Chase.

Cars are just one of the types of things Parisians are sharing via this new brand of website, called everything from collaborative consumption to Web sharing to the mesh. Airbnb has a sizable user base in the city (I’m writing this from a Parisian flat rented on Airbnb); one of the earliest Web-sharing companies, Zilok, which enables users to rent out tools, is based in Paris.

There’s so much action going on that a company called OuiShare—launched as part think tank, part media company—to track the local scene. Dementhon tells me during an interview at Drivy’s offices: “We [Paris] are the perfect country for collaborative consumption.” My question is: Why?

One of the obvious drivers of at least the car-sharing economy in Paris is the city’s crowded streets and lack of parking spaces. It’s not just that traffic blocks the motorways at most times (which it does), but parking in the city’s winding streets is utterly impacted. I used an Uber car to get to a meeting this week, and it took double the time it would have taken me in San Francisco to drive across the city because of traffic and small streets filled with parked, and double parked, cars.

It’s also expensive to own and operate a car in Paris. Gas, car ownership, and driving on toll roads all cost a lot of money. That’s one of the first reasons people sign up for peer-to-peer car-sharing companies in Paris, as well as ride-sharing services like BlaBlaCar. Car owners can get help covering the cost of owning their cars, and drivers can rent out cars for cheaper than owning their own. For ride sharing, the collaborative consumption economy can reduce the cost of driving.

Parking is also bad enough in the city that if there are enough cars in the car-sharing company’s network, it’s likely that one of the shared cars is pretty close to where the user is. Drivy markets its service as being closer to where its drivers are (now that it’s got 115,000 cars signed up). There’s an immanent network effect once a company gets big enough. Autolib also has the added bonus of designated parking spots and one-way driving trips.

But beyond the crowded streets and the car-sharing opportunity, Dementhon thinks there’s something more inherent in the Parisian culture that’s spurring the Web-sharing economy in the city. Paris is a city that has a well-off population, but it’s also a place that is relaxed enough to accept some of the extra time and attention it takes to make Web sharing work.

“We’re less square. We tolerate less organization,” Dementhon says. Anyone who’s rented a car from a car-sharing network (particularly right after someone has used it), or an apartment off of Airbnb, knows what Dementhon is talking about. It takes some getting used to, and there are lots of things that can be unexpected, such as less-than-clean cars and apartments or quirky cars and apartment owners.

Paris has such a vibrant Web-sharing culture that Americans could stand to learn a thing or two from their Parisian counterparts. BlaBlaCar found success with ride sharing, while that type of service has failed to take off in the U.S. And Drivy seemed to get its target market right sooner in its lifetime than comparable American companies by focusing on day-long and multi-day-long trips, instead of pushing to have its cars rented out by the hour.

Drivy is now particularly focused on making sure its services—for cars and drivers that have problems—is robust and takes care of its users. BlaBlaCar has also spent years developing its services—from ratings to engagement to activities—that build trust in its community.

The car technology aspect has been secondary to the Parisian companies, while developing and taking care of their community has been more important. Drivy hasn’t focused much on the automated tech aspect of its service yet. This contrasts with American counterparts Getaround and RelayRides, who have highlighted the automated unlocking and locking systems as major parts of their companies. Dementhon tells me that Drivy will add the automated tech aspect soon enough but is still waiting and looking at how things like iOS for cars changes the game.

Both BlaBlaCar and Drivy want to build on their successes in Paris and across Europe and expand their services, but are hesitant to rush into launching in the U.S. The reality is that Paris, and Europe in general, isn’t such a big market for an enterprising startup. Latin America might be more interesting to Drivy when it wants to branch out. When these companies do expand outside Europe, they’ll take what they learned with them.

We think Web-sharing startups and tech companies in Paris, as well as across London and Berlin, are interesting enough that we’re increasing our coverage of the scene. We’re holding our second annual Structure:Europe conference in London in late September this year, and we’re looking for startups to join our lineup.

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