Fill your seats, not your tank!

Sharing has certainly gained momentum in the field of transport over recent years. Yet  this emerging economy is nothing new to Liftshare, which already has 30 million lift shares under its belt.

For over 17 years this U.K.-based, social enterprise has been opening eyes to an underutilised, yet abundant resource in our daily lives – empty seats in cars.

“There’s been a huge amount of attention on making vehicles more fuel efficient, on electric vehicles, but the simplest way to boost fuel efficiency is for cars to have more passengers,” points out founder and managing director Ali Clabburn. “A car with a passenger is 100% more efficient than with just a driver.”

Liftshare enables organised car sharing by connecting people travelling in the same direction so they can arrange to travel together, share the costs… and play a part in reducing road congestion and air pollution.

Yet unlike other, more recent shared mobility players (Uber, BlaBlaCar, et al.), the company has been on this trajectory since 1998! Having gained considerable experience  along the way, its offer today comprises:

  • a free service to individuals
  • a pay-for corporate platform to help businesses set up their own online journey-matching tools
  • marketing and events support; plus
  • myPTP – a personal travel planning tool (developed in house) that integrates data for multiple modes of transport

To date, nearly 700,000 people have hooked up with Liftshare across the U.K. and some 4 million car seats are available in any given week.

“When setting up the business, I thought it would appeal to young male students looking for rides over the weekends,” says Mr Clabburn. “Yet our users are all ages, all profiles, and we have more women than men sharing. Also there’s often a misconception that you have to have a car to lift share. We don’t want to oblige everyone to have wheels!”

More efficient use of roads & parking

The company generates an annual turnover of around £1.3 million (€1.8m) and employs a team of 30, working out of its head office in Norwich (East of England). Used by more than 700 corporate communities, its professional roster includes Jaguar Land Rover, Vodafone, Tesco, Thames Valley Park, Whitbread, Cobalt Business Park (North Tyneside), and EDF Energy.

“Over the past few months [second half of 2015] we’ve been gathering case studies from these clients to study in detail what really happens, i.e. feedback and figures, in the field… and it’s really amazing!” reports Mr Clabburn. “The communities we’ve launched this year [2015] have already saved millions [of pounds].”

Easing the burden on parking

In November 2015, Great Western Hospitals NHS Trust implemented a Liftshare scheme to ease the pressure on its oversubscribed car park; the aim being to incentivise its 4,000-strong workforce to car share or find alternative transport to use during the commute to/from work.

Before the scheme was initiated:

  • 3,600 hospital employees had parking permits, but there were only 1,800-spaces
  • parking cost £5 (€6.8) per month and was largely unrestricted
  • parking was split as roughly two-thirds for patients, one third staff

To encourage individuals to sign up (to date 30% of staff have registered), radical changes were implemented.  Fees were hiked up to £1 (€1.4) per day. And staff were restricted to parking six days in a fortnight, except weekends, unless there were special circumstances.

The success of the initiative has seen the hospital freeing up an average of 250 extra spaces for patients every day.

Cutting down on car miles

Meanwhile in the Black Isle, Scotland, a three-year project baptised Million Miles has exceeded expectations to reduce the number of car miles on local roads.

The initiative surpassed its original target of one million (1.5km) by 30%, i.e. 1,352,277 less miles, which equates to saving 718 tonnes of carbon a year. The Liftshare scheme saw 726 members register and 23% of those sharing their journey on a regular basis.

“We use lift sharing as one of the key planks to cut down on car miles,” comments Marion McDonald, transport project officer, Million Miles. “People generally travel quite significant distances so the cost savings do add up quickly.”

Power to the community spirit

Online community: a group of people with common interests who use the internet (web sites, email, instant messaging, etc.) to communicate, work together, and pursue their interests over time.

One of the driving forces behind Liftshare, and indeed any successful sharing economy platform, is its community spirit.

“I think community is in all of us,” reckons Mr Clabburn. “However since the 60s, marketeers have been trying to get us to focus on being individuals in order to drive up consumption. But I think people are now realising the importance and power of communities. Indeed social networks have proven just this.”

Online communities break down barriers, create trust, make daily life more efficient, sociable, and affordable. The whole sharing economy shows that people can take the next phase in that development and get back to doing things together – not necessarily through friends or family, but online.

How strange is a stranger?

According to a BBC survey, 7 out of 10 people have not yet tried lift sharing. Bearing in mind the childhood warning ‘never get into a car with a stranger’, do fears over safety present a barrier to joining the Liftshare movement?

Mr Clabburn doesn’t see things quite this way, preferring to answer my question with his question – so what is a stranger?  And on reflection, it is worth assessing one’s personal ‘tipping point’.

When does a stranger become a friend or a colleague? How many times do you have to meet them? What do you have to know about them? Do you trust people you know through friends, if you see their profile picture, if they have positive reviews?

“Safety is, of course, something everyone must be aware of,” admits Mr Clabburn. “But one thing we’ve found within the whole sharing economy is that different business models impact behaviour very differently.

“Over the past 17 years at Liftshare we are unaware of any incidents, physical abuse, or anthing of this nature. Occasionally you get users who are upset because someone has let them down or hasn’t turned up. But then they just have to give them a bad rating and that’s it.”

Benefits of feedback

Very much part of the online landscape today, ratings and review systems serve to significantly increase trust within the community in question, and to boost the credibility of the company, services, or products on offer. Since its beginnings, Liftshare has used, then removed, and most recently reinstalled a brand new such system.

We had one in the early years,” explains Mr Clabburn, “but took it out because pretty much everyone was rating well, or we found they weren’t being entirely honestly because they were worried the other person would rate them badly.

“Also, at this time a lot of our users were sharing regular rides, so they didn’t need to review the same driver again and again. Basically the system wasn’t adding value.

“But about three to four years ago, our members started to expect it and use it differently, plus they were more honest when posting. Plus, don’t forget that a car doesn’t have just two seats but five, so if a driver receives positive feedback, this can help fill up their car, and everyone spends even less than before as a consequence.”

Since implementating the new and improved system in 2013, 70% of of the Liftshare community have been rated 10/10, with the average being 8.

Furthermore, to overcome one issue experienced by members – not receiving a timely response from others, thus making it difficult to plan in advance – quick responder badges are added to all listings from members who reply to messages received, on average, within 24 hours.

‘This new badge is designed to help members searching, so they can easily identify and contact those they know are likely to respond promptly,’ explains Liftshare.

Travel planning across all modes

Another tool up Liftshare’s sleeve is its personal travel planner MyPTP.

Demand for personalised travel planning has grown over the last ten years, then delined a little because it became incredibly expensive to deliver to many people,” says Mr Clabburn. “But we built an online version that is far more cost effective, and has a greater impact on user behaviour than anything else. It’s done really well and there’s huge potential to more with it.”

Unique to MyPTP, lift sharing is put on a level playing field with other transport options. The app takes every mode – walking, cycling, the bus, train, car – and breaks up the journey between them.

It also builds in park and ride, proposing locations to car drivers along their routes plus the bus departure and journey times into town. Thus giving users all the information needed for a seamless journey across different modes.

We have really good partnerships with companies like Stagecoach,” says Mr Clabburn, “whereby we help them get more people on their buses, and they help us get more people into cars. Also with train operators, getting people to share car rides to stations.

“MyPTP is a cross between Google Transit + Liftshare + City Mapper, with the ultimate aim being to improve the whole end-to-end journey,” he sums up.

Almost too simple

There seems to be little not to like about lift sharing – it helps take cars off the roads, alleviates parking and congestion headaches, reduces carbon emissions, promotes healthier and more sustainable ways to get to work, and creates greater accessibility to jobs.

Yet despite ticking all these boxes, such mobility is not particularly GDP friendly. This might explain why the U.K. government and politicians are not giving it more support, e.g. by investing in high occupancy lanes (HOL) that provide faster travel times to people who use limited capacity more efficiently.

When widening the M1 motorway (running between the north and south of England, between the cities of London and Leeds) in 2007 there was talk of including 17 miles of HOL. Yet these plans were quietly scrapped in 2008.

“I travelled over North America in 2007 looking at a lot of its HOLs, seeing how the authorities invest in them and how they work,” says Mr Clabburn.

“In Washington State, the existing 200 miles [322km] should be extended to 300 miles [483km] by 2020. The State Authority here spend some US$5 million [€4.6m] annually on promoting car pooling [i.e. lift sharing], which is probably 10 times the amount spent collectively on promoting this mode of transport in the U.K.! And they consider its 20,000 users really good value for money.

“In comparison the scheme we used to run for TfL [Transport for London], LondonLiftshare, had 30,000 car pooling users, but they stopped funding the service in 2008.”

Postive impacts

A 2015 report by Deloitte – ‘Smart Mobility: Reducing congestion and fostering faster, greener, and cheaper transportation options’ – backs the argument that all different forms of car sharing are indeed clear wins.

After examining the impacts of various new transport modes on cities in the US, analysts at Deloitte reveal that car/lift/ride sharing come out on top, with “the potential to offer around US$30 billion [€27.6b] in annual savings to individuals and cities from reduced congestion, deferred road construction, and lower carbon emissions.” Car clubs, i.e. car sharing, come second, with “potential savings of up to US$3 billion [€2.7b] a year.”

The matter with money

“In the U.K., car clubs have benefitted from a significant amount of funding support from the government, with a number of pilot/demonstration towns and cities across the country,” comments Mr Clabburn. “But lift sharing hasn’t had anything, ever.”

Another reason, he suggests, behind this lack of support for the lift sharing cause may be that it is almost too simple, “involving no real capital cost, but rather marketing and behavioural change, no one is going to make a huge amount of money out of it. Therefore no one has the money to do a good job campaigning for it.

“Having met pretty much every transport minister over the years, I’ve noticed that they tend to love lift sharing most when in opposition,” he adds. “But once in power, they turn their attention to more ‘important/photo opportunity’ matters such as building more roads or bigger trains.”

Solution for the here & now

Let’s not forget the climate crisis, as highlighted by the COP21 summit in 2015. Here Mr Clabburn was a panel guest at the EU flagship event ‘transport decarbonisation as an engine for growth’, hosted by Violeta Bulc, European Commissioner for Transport.

With around about one fifth of EU greenhouse emissions coming from transport systems, efforts are ongoing to develop cleaner fuels and technologies. And while no one denies they are moves in the right direction, such changes not going mainstream anytime soon.

“In the meantime,” counters Mr Clabburn, “a solution like lift sharing, which reduces the number of cars on the roads and consequently C02 emissions, is available now!”

By 2050, more than 9 billion people will call the planet home and 70% of them will be living in urban areas. Given these figures, the need to adapt our attitdes to mobility sooner, rather than too later, is pretty obvious. But are we turning a blind eye?

The easier it becomes to match up lift offers and demands, the more likely people are to adopt this kind of transport alternative,” reckons Mr Clabburn.” I think in the future we will be sharing cars out of necessity. But I’d just like to see us doing it before it we have no choice in the matter. People become a community in a crisis situation, as was the case during 9/11, the London bombings [2005], and the Paris terrorist attacks [2015].”

In New York, following the events of September 11 in 2001, a ban on single occupancy vehicles driving during rush hour into Manhattan was imposed as a security measure. It resulted in a surge in car and lift sharing.

“We are in a climate crisis today,” points out Mr Clabburn,” but since its impacts have yet to touch our daily lives, this community spirit has yet to manifest.”

Fill your seats, not your tank

Despite his many years in the field, Mr Clabburn remains a man on a mission.

“Right now in the U.K., about 1% of the population has signed up with Liftshare,” he tells Passion4Transport, “which is just scratching the surface. Our objective is 20%, so there’s still plenty of work to be done.”

“We’d like to do to car travel what recycling has done to waste, or smoking bans to smoking behaviour.”

Having said that he is not against the car per se, seeing nothing necessarily  wrong with single occupancy vehicles when the only transport option. His real gripe? People complaining about traffic congestion, pollution, and fuel prices while continuing to drive with empty seats.


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