Commuting start-ups doing well in France

By Roxanne Varza on May 14th, 2012

For the country that invented the word “entrepreneur”, it is odd that France generally isn’t seen as a country of early adopters. That said, there are certain sectors where the population seems far more willing to give a new concept a try, even compared to markets like the US.

Take commuting, for example. When Zipcar founder Robin Chase set out to launch new car-share service Buzzcar last year, she chose France as her first market.

Clearly aware of the differences between American and French commuters, Chase says that in France, “a greater portion of the population can lead car-independent lives and the price of gas is high”. As a result, many French commuters are reconsidering the cost of owning a car and are looking to alternatives, which is precisely what makes Buzzcar successful.

Unlike Zipcar, which operates a fleet of cars, Buzzcar allows individuals to share their own car with others, in an Airbnb kind of way. Car owners can rent out their vehicles by the hour or the day and earn money. The rental price is calculated based on the age and make of the car, among other criteria.

The ability for users to share their own cars with others and earn money is what sets Buzzcar apart from Paris’s new Autolib electric car-sharing service.

Launched in December 2011, Autolib is essentially the car equivalent to Paris’s Velib’ bike-sharing service, which launched in 2007. Recent stats reveal that some 15,000 people are currently signed up to the Autolib service, primarily in the 18-35 age bracket. The company plans to ramp up the number of available electric vehicles to 3,000 cars before the end of the year.

Still, despite the fact that the US may seem far more car-dependent, Chase says some US cities have a similar commute culture to France. People living in more “walkable” cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington DC or Chicago, do not generally require a car to lead their daily lives.

Of course, once outside the city, it becomes practically impossible to travel without a car in the US. In France and in many other European countries, the well-developed high-speed train networks make it far easier to travel outside of big cities without a car.

There is also another start-up that offers a great, low-cost alternative to high-speed trains for longer commutes: Blablacar. Launched in France in 2007, this start-up functions as a carpooling marketplace. In a model that’s similar to Buzzcar, drivers can earn money by charging passengers for a ride; rather than renting out the entire car, drivers and car-owners can rent out individual seats in their car for a given trip.

While the thought of getting into a car with a bunch of strangers may seem unsettling to some, Europeans have more of a train/bus/subway culture and are less put off by the thought of travelling with others. In fact, the name “Blablacar” actually refers to the fact that new people can meet and chat while commuting together. The company even allows users to select drivers by how “chatty” they are.

European travel culture, along with the fact that people are looking for eco-friendly, inexpensive options, makes early adoption of these different types of commuting services that much easier.

Still, Buzzcar’s Chase maintains that there are some complexities to developing these types of services locally that aren’t necessarily an issue in other countries, such as the US.

For example, France’s strong data privacy laws make it impossible for individuals to share their driving history in real-time, even if they want to. In France, neither individuals nor companies have electronic access to their driving history, which makes it difficult to weed out the bad drivers. As a result, everyone needs to pay a slightly higher rate.

Furthermore, when signing up for new services in France, it’s often necessary to prove a current place of residence with a recent bill. However, these are rarely electronic and never available in real-time, which adds an additional irritating and time-consuming hurdle for anyone that wants to sign-up for a new service quickly.

Yet, despite these small inconveniences, people still take the time to sign-up and try out the different services. Plus, there are ways to counter balance these set-backs by leveraging technology and innovation in other areas. With Buzzcar, for example, users can use their smartphones to upload photos of the information required (driver’s licence, car registration, car photos, etc.) when signing-up, which removes a lot of the headache of a typical sign-up procedure.

Naturally, there may be a few bumps along the road. But the French aren’t shying away from trying new innovations in travel and commuting.