- The French ride-sharing app BlaBlaCar, like its rivals Uber and Lyft, saw its business plummet during the coronavirus lockdown.
- A group of drivers, with the company's support, created BlaBlaHelp, a volunteer mutual-aid network that dropped off essential items to people in need. Twenty thousand people registered within 72 hours.
- The move highlights the cultural chasm that has emerged between BlaBlaCar and its gig-economy rivals.
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A month into the coronavirus quarantine, the French ride-sharing company BlaBlaCar turned its users into a makeshift volunteer network. Instead of being paid for rides, drivers offered to deliver essential items to people who needed them by downloading BlaBlaHelp. This tech shortcut to mutual aid clearly struck a chord — 20,000 people registered within 72 hours, and thousands have followed since.
The move highlighted the cultural chasm that has opened up, and is still widening, between the startup and its rivals such as Uber and Lyft.
BlaBlaCar launched in 2006 and now has a billion-dollar valuation. It has gained nearly 90 million users and expanded to 22 countries across four continents. Profits increased by 71% in 2019 as the company expanded operations to include buses (BlaBlaBus) and regular commutes (BlaBlaLines). The company announced BlaBlaRide, a scooter service, earlier this month. In other words, it's growing just as fast as its rivals — but it differs in two key areas.
First, it focuses on carpooling, connecting drivers planning an intercity trip with passengers who have the same destination. Second, its drivers do it to help offset costs, not make a profit. They are part of the sharing economy, not the gig economy — and pricing is designed to cover gas, wear and tear, and BlaBlaCar's operation fee (10% to 20% depending on the journey).
Because the company doesn't employ freelance taxi drivers, it has avoided many of the regulatory headaches Uber and Lyft have faced, particularly in Europe. But it, like other startups, has had a difficult year. The coronavirus nearly brought operations to a complete stop — the prospect of sharing a car with a stranger was either unappetizing or against lockdown rules. In France, where 40% of people ages 18 to 35 are said to be BlaBlaCar users, the company was operating at less than 10% of normal capacity. Uber and Lyft were similarly devastated during lockdown — Uber lost nearly $1.8 billion in the second quarter of the year.
BlaBlaHelp was the result of a weeklong hackathon, which began after about 50 BlaBlaCar drivers decided they wanted to help others during the pandemic. The app connects volunteers, called Helpers, with neighbors in need of groceries or medication.
To participate, BlaBlaCar users just need to connect their existing account to the BlaBlaHelp app. From there, others in the area can see a brief bio and their star rating, imported from BlaBlaCar. Helper who list themselves as available are connected to a neighbor in need.
"We asked ourselves and our community how we could best contribute in these difficult times … Now it's over to the community to play their part," the CEO and cofounder, Nicolas Brusson, said in the company's official statement. BlaBlaCar charges a service fee per journey, but BlaBlaHelp does not.
Volunteers around the world advertise their help on the app. In the suburbs of Paris, Axelle says, she "can get your groceries, pick up your packages, your medication, and more if you need it!" Lucia, in Madrid, says: "Just let me know what you need and where you are."
Mutual aid and the gig economy
A study commissioned by BlaBlaCar in 2016 found that users saw ride-sharing as "a relationship of equals." Research conducted by New York University in partnership with the company showed similar results. Almost half of BlaBlaCar users say ride-sharing has made them "more open to others," emphasizing the social nature of the platform.
Uber's research on its users in 2015 found different motivations. "Driver-partners" use the app to "be their own boss." The research did not mention helping others as a motive. They have continued to drive, despite the danger of exposure to the virus, because they need money. Nearly two-thirds of Uber drivers who responded to a survey said they had no alternative source of income.
As demand for rides plunged, Uber pledged 10 million rides and food deliveries to healthcare workers and people in need as part of its Move What Matters campaign. The company is also providing governments with user data to aid contact tracing.
But, in May, a survey by the Rideshare Guy blog found nearly 80% of drivers felt ride-sharing companies weren't doing enough to support them during the pandemic. Despite Lyft and Uber distributing money to drivers since the crisis began, critics have argued that financial assistance like sick pay should not be ad-hoc charity but an automatic right.
"It's not in the same spirit at all. Uber isn't a cooperative mutual aid platform like BlaBlaCar," said Franck O'Clair, a driver who has logged 343 trips in BlaBlaCar but none for Uber.
Perhaps this goodwill has contributed to BlaBlaCar's recovery. After coming to a near standstill in spring, the company has reported hundreds of thousands of bookings for summer vacations.
"I don't like to make money with BlaBlaCar because for me, that's not the point," O'Clair said. "I'm not a taxi driver, and the passengers aren't cash cows."