Baby, You Can Drive My Car
Probably you’ve heard as many stories as I have about people hitchhiking across the country, or backpacking through Europe, when they were “young.” I didn’t do that. It isn’t that the idea wasn’t enchanting to me, it was. But back then, I felt incapable, afraid, and compelled toward a different path. I hitchhiked only once that I can recall, with my friend Jeff when we were around 15-years-old. It was a cold and snowy day in suburban Minnesota, and we caught a ride a few blocks from a strip mall to a corner closer to his house. It wasn’t my idea.
Fast forward three and a half decades. I recently spent a couple of weeks in Spain, which is in an economic crisis, making travel by train and even bus inaccessible to many who live there. Take the internet and some ingenuity, and a system first developed in France a few years ago, and the solution emerged, called Bla Bla Car. At first it seemed sketchy to people, and now, a short time later, it is widely accepted.
Here is how it works. You register with the website, and can either offer a ride to others (thereby gaining paying passengers on a trip you were already planning to take), or search for rides to and from wherever you need to go. The price is set in advance, using a system that claims to only pay for the expenses, and no profit – therefore not voiding your insurance by being a “car for hire.”
Passengers can rate and review the driver after the trip, and your driver can do the same to his or her passengers. Drivers set standards, displayed on the website, about whether or not music is played, or smoking allowed, or pets can travel in the car. And all involved can establish an expectation about what amount of interaction they’d prefer – based on the slang for talking, “blah blah blah.” Bla means less talking, bla bla means a middle amount, and bla bla bla means you love to talk.
It is so widely utilized that the government is now wanting to regulate and tax it, in part because it has drawn off so much of their rail and bus traffic. They claim to have six million users. It makes life more affordable for drivers and riders both. Bla bla car’s motto: Connecting drivers with people travelling the same way.
Some of you know I have a high regard for cooperative systems. Beehives, for instance, get rave reviews from me. As do projects so big and complicated it takes a well-orchestrated team to deploy them. Restaurant meal-splitting. Adoptions. Orchestras. Surprising the bride and groom with a song and dance routine their attendants learned in secret gets me every time. Plus, in spite of my enormous vehicle, I like things that are less profoundly contaminating to the environment. And in the current version of my lifestyle, modeled in part after Daniel Suelo of The Man Who Quit Money fame, anything that makes travel significantly more affordable is worthy of my attention and inquiry.
So when the hostel suggested three ways I might get to Seville—the train, the bus and blablacar— I checked it out. The train was 140 euros. (That’s over two hundred U.S. dollars.) Bla bla car? Sixteen euros. (Under 24 U.S. dollars.) Plus, they’d pick me up where I was.
It doesn’t work perfectly. Sometimes you make the arrangements, and something falls through. Riders don’t show up. Drivers don’t show up. And I admit, this happened to me once. However, my arrangements were handicapped from the outset by the fact I don’t speak Spanish, and didn’t have a working cell phone. I was discussing things through a translator most of the time, usually a hotel clerk, on a hotel or hostel front desk phone. (I suspect my driver did show up, but didn’t come inside, where I was waiting in the hotel lobby.) Still, if one falls through, get on the website and round up another ride—there’s plenty to choose from.
During my two weeks in Spain, I tried and failed to use blablacar once, and successfully used it twice, once from Barcelona to Madrid, and another time from Madrid to Seville. I had engaging and funny conversation with my travel-mates, sang songs, told stories, and learned about what “means” Spain. (Not so much the bull, more so the Camino.) I came to understand the desire for independence being expressed by Catalonia, and the resistance to it from elsewhere in Spain. I helped travelers with their English (something they were extremely interested in perfecting) and they translated for me to riders who spoke no English. I got directions and advice, and offers to share snacks. On one trip, we stopped for coffee at a restaurant when we were partway there. On that same trip, we advised the very friendly and polite driver, Pablo, that he might want to update his photo on the website because it makes him look stern and might make people reluctant to ride with him.
When I described this car-sharing system to a new friend in a hostel, she said, “Oh, like glamorous hitchhiking!” I laughed, and agreed, yes, kind of like that. Twice, I got into vehicles with people I did not know, hoping they were taking me to the place they said they were taking me, with no working cell phone and no fluency with the language. (I did this while carrying all I was traveling with in a back pack. I guess that means I hitchhiked across Spain with a backpack.) I would without a doubt do it again, and have been wondering if a safe alternative exists in the U.S., and if not, why not.
And for those of you with an entrepreneurial spirit, they tell me it started three years ago. It has six million users, and one million rides are shared per month. Don’t you think it wants to come to a country near you?
Want to know more? Try this blog post on collaborative consumption and blablacar.