Science, Tech & Environment

Carpooling the German Way

carpool.jpg

(Photo: carpooling.com)

In the United States, gas prices climbed to a record high for the month of January, despite the fact that it's a month when prices typically come down. It's enough to drive you to carpool. At least that's what one web-based German company called Carpooling.com, which has been helping Germans share rides for more than a decade, is hoping.

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In a parking lot outside of Munich's main train station, Lars Biederstedt meets the people he'll spend the next five to six hours with. Biederstedt drives from Munich (where he works) to Berlin (where his parents live) almost every weekend.

As we climb into his seven-seater van, he tells me about his other ride.

"I have a Triumph Tiger, an English motorcycle," Biederstedt says, "And when the seats are out, the motorcycle can come in, and when the seats are in, I can carry people or my family."

Biederstedt never drives to Berlin alone. Instead, he offers seats in his van through a website called Mitfahrgelegenheit, one of those wonderfully rich German words that means, essentially, "a lift."

Sabrina, a student in Munich, found the offer on the website. She contacted Biederstedt and booked a one-way trip for about $40.

"The train is more expensive," Sabrina says. "Besides, going by car is nicer, friendlier. You can get to know other people."

Soon, Biederstedt's other passengers show up, and as they all pile into the van to escape the bitter cold, he quickly tells me that he'll make just enough from his passengers to pay for gas and upkeep on the van.

And then the van doors close, and the trip is under way.

This is a scene that plays out all over Germany thanks to the Mitfahrgelegenheit website.

It all started more than decade ago, when three friends at a university in Würzburg needed to help keep love alive.

"One of us had a girlfriend, not living in Würzburg, so we had a demand to travel in a cheap way," says Michael Reinicke, Managing Director of Mitfahrgelegenheit.

He and his two friends decided to build a website where people could offer and accept cheap rides between German cities. The idea, spread mainly by word of mouth, took off. First, it was mostly students, but soon others were curious about the service.

"We think all trips by car could be shared," says Reinicke. "Whenever you want to go with your car, you could take people with you, and therefore reduce carbon emissions and your costs."

For the first six years, Reinicke and his pals worked on the website in their spare time, but by 2007, it had grown into a full-fledged business.

In 2010, they expanded to six other countries, including Spain, Poland, France and Great Britain.

And because "Mitfahrgelegenheit" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue for non-German speakers, they renamed the company Carpooling.com.

Call it whatever you want. The company estimates that one million people per month are now using the service.

Passengers and drivers alike can size each other up via an online ratings system. And most people seem to get along just fine. Some better than others.

"We wouldn't have met if there wasn't Mitfahrgelegenheit," says Julia Mallek, who met her future husband, Dominik, on a shared ride in 2008.

On a Skype call she continues: "We talked for three hour. Then he was the last person I dropped off, and he said, well, perhaps we can see each other again sometime, and I said yes. And one month later we were a couple."

Mallek is then interrupted by the sound of the baby crying, and you can hear where their story goes next.

Carpooling.com makes money in three ways. First, it takes a small percentage of the proceeds from each ride. But the bigger money-spinner is advertising on its much-visited website. The company also custom-tailors its software for large businesses that want to offer ride-sharing for their employees.

And the website offers discounted tickets on German trains and busses, so that people can combine various modes of transportation to book door-to-door trips.

Now, the company has plans to enter the US market.

"Even in the US, the financial crisis, has had a deep impact on how people think about traveling," says Carpooling.com CEO Markus Barnikel, who lived in the San Francisco area for years as an employee of Yahoo!

Barnikel admits that carpooling in the US has never really taken off. For one thing, he says, you don't want to get stuck at work while your travel buddy suddenly has to stay late.

But he also thinks the Carpooling.com idea could change that.

"We would allow people commuting to companies to say, 'When I know I'm going to leave, let's say an hour or two in advance. I'm just going to pick another ride, and get another person to take me back home.'"

"I think that kind of offering, with this kind of flexibility, will be very appealing to the North American market," says Barnikel.

I put it to Barnikel that many Americans think of their cars as a second home, a place they don't normally invite strangers.

He says that may be true for an older generation, but he thinks younger Americans feel differently about sharing, especially if they can save money.

For example, he says, look at the success of the website Airbnb, which allows you to rent out your apartment or a room in your house in much the same way carpooling.com does for spaces in cars.

And, Barnikel notes, the fact that you can go on the website, and see the profile of who you will be riding with will also help reluctant drivers and passengers overcome any trepidation.

For the company, though, there's a host of US regulatory and liability issues to be dealt with at federal, state and local levels.

"Each time we enter a new market, this is one of the first areas we study," says Odile Beniflah, who works for Carpooling.com out in New York City. "The legal implications of taking someone in your car, the implications on car insurance, whether commercial drivers can do carpooling or not, we study all of that."

"The German law from that perspective is a very strict law," she notes, "and so because we had to comply with the German law, we think we can easily adapt to other countries."

Beniflah says there are already hundreds of ride-sharing and carpooling websites in the United States.

But with the exception of a few, like Ridester and ZimRide, they mostly focus on very local rides, not longer-distance.

Carpooling thinks its long experience in the business will give it an advantage. The company won't say, though, exactly when or where they intend to roll out their service in the US.