Move over Uber: BlaBlaCar brings a different kind of ride-sharing to Europe

The Paris-based BlaBlaCar helps match up drivers and passengers for long trips across Europe while avoiding the regulatory issues that have tripped up Uber.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
A car is seen parked on its roof during the 'A Journey to Nantes' (Le Voyage a Nantes) art festival in Nantes, France, last month. A new Paris-based Internet start-up, BlaBlaCar, is trying to turn European travel on its head by more easily enabling ride-sharing for long trips across the Continent.

Parisians know how strikes can plunge their lives into chaos. But when striking train drivers prevented Alix Salle from going back to work after a weekend in the countryside, she took action.

Using a long-distance ride sharing app called BlaBlaCar, Ms. Salle got a ride in a stranger's car, paying less than what she would have with the train, and discovering the virtues of socializing along the way.

With 9 million users in 12 countries, BlaBlaCar, a Paris-based Internet platform that connects drivers with empty seats with passenger looking for a ride, has become one of France's hottest start-ups. Call it the smartphone-era equivalent of hitchhiking, BlaBlaCar wants to revolutionize people's traveling habits by being a cheaper, more environmentally friendly and social alternative to the train and plane.

“People realize that all those empty seats in car traveling between French and European cities are a big waste,” says BlaBlaCar CEO Frédéric Mazzella, who created the company in 2006 when he couldn't find a train from Paris to visit his family in the French countryside. “Drivers can't conceive to ride empty any more.”

There's even a social aspect to it: The app's name derives from just users rate themselves on how chatty they want to be in the car, from “Bla” to “BlaBlaBla."

It's another addition to the boom in recent years of servicing-sharing apps, which help users rent bikes (Splinster), exchange art (Artsicle), or even borrow stuff from their neighbors (NeighborGoods).

“BlaBlaCar is an another example of the exploding sharing economy, where the emphasis is shifting from owning to 'renting,'” says Carol Coletta, an expert on the development of cities at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami. “It's a grand experiment that is challenging governments because they are inventing new rules for this new economy on the fly.“

“If it drives us to living lighter, that’s positive,” Ms. Coletta says. “If it drives workers to compete on lowest cost, that’s problematic.”

BlaBlaCar is also taking a lesson from the difficulties encountered by American ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft. This spring, angry cab drivers brought traffic to a halt in cities across Europe to the apps, which they say are threatening their livelihood. But where Uber and Lyft drivers profit from their efforts, BlaBlaCar users aren't allowed to. What passengers pay – some $25 on average for a typical 200-mile journey – is used to offset the costs of fuel and tolls.

“We don’t want a driver to make a profit because then you end up in regulatory issues,” BlaBlaCar co-founder Nicolas Brusson says. “If you don’t make a profit, you don’t have to worry about a special license.”

Since 2012, BlaBlaCar has expanded from France to 12 countries, with Russia being the latest addition. In July, it raised $100 million in capital funding, which it wants to use to go more global. 

“If you look at Russia and Turkey and other emerging markets, we start linking cities that don’t even have trains,” says Mr. Brusson. “We are enabling a layer of infrastructure that isn’t there.”

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