Will Ridesharing Catch on in the United States?

Car in Cozumel
Car in Cozumel

This would be a fun rideshare car

I’ve written a lot lately about ridesharing in Spain, and I’ve discovered that this idea of sharing spare seats in cars driving short and long distances is very practical, economical, and it’s actually quite fun and social. So that got me thinking, why can’t we do this in the United States, where people spend lots of time in their cars.

It’s not that there aren’t ridesharing services in the United States, but as far as I can tell they are not used very much. In fact ridesharing is so unknown in the U.S. that we’ve allowed the peer to peer taxi companies to redefine the term to mean “sharing a taxi with strangers.” Meanwhile in Europe city to city ridesharing has really caught on. Blablacar, the biggest and fastest growing company in this market, launched in France in 2009 and now has over 9 million members in Europe and Russia. And they just launched services in Turkey after raising $100 Million in funding to expand ridesharing.

There are some compelling reasons why the United States needs ridesharing. 80% of seats in cars on the road in this country are empty. That’s a lot of unnecessary energy waste and pollution. And a lot of potential money that could be saved: transportation is America’s second highest household expense. (source: http://blog.lyft.com/posts/2014/4/4/lyft-community-update)


If this is your car you need ridesharing

But I think there are a few barriers to ridesharing in the United States. The distances between cities and destinations in Europe are generally shorter. Gas is much cheaper in the U.S. Public transit within many cities is not great and so people want a car at their destination, not just to get there. And finally, I think the culture of individualism in the United States is a barrier to people getting into cars with strangers.

There are several companies trying to get ridesharing moving in the U.S., including some that have been around for years and others that launched in the past year or two. But no one company is clearly winning in this space. Some of the ridesharing websites have a nice interface and a decent number of rides posted at first glance, but the volume in any given location is still small. A search on several sites for trips leaving from San Francisco over the next few weeks suggests that most people are looking for riders for long distance trips (to Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas). This is useful, but not the same as a forum for the short distance ride shares that seem common in Europe, and which could get so many more people sharing cars.  (To see all the ride sharing companies that I’ve found, check out my spreadsheet and select the category “Transportation” or “p to p ridesharing” as the description.)

One of my American friends suggested perhaps Lyft is well situated to offer ridesharing as a feature for the American market. They might have the critical mass of users to launch something like this to success, and it would build their brand and user base. Interestingly, Lyft launched their current peer to peer taxi business in 2012 as a spinoff of Zimride, a carpooling service founded in 2007. So they apparently don’t see a strong market and actually pivoted away from ridesharing (Zimride was sold to Enterprise).

I’d really like to see ride sharing gain traction in the United States. But I don’t see that happening without an end to government subsidies of gas to give people have a stronger incentive to share rides to offset the cost of their travels. I also don’t see organic growth of these ridesharing sites creating enough users for a critical mass. The Amerikan ridesharing market needs a known brand or deep pockets to make a big push for membership to hit numbers sufficient for broad adoption as a practical method of travel.

For now, ridesharing is a useful money saving tool for travels in Europe. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should plan on using Blablacar on your next Europe trip.

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