Lyft’s sale of Zimride shows how ride sharing hasn’t caught on in the U.S. yet

Lyft Zimride car-sharing real-time app

For around five out of its six years of life, startup Zimride has been focused on building communities in the U.S. around ride sharing, or allowing people to arrange shared car rides together. Despite a solid team, strong backers and a lot of hard work, the company amassed just 350,000 users and sold its ride sharing service to rental giant Enterprise this week.

In contrast, the group that created Zimride, also launched an on-demand peer-to-peer car service called Lyft a little over a year ago, and that business has exploded in growth in certain cities in the U.S. The Lyft team has said its system has been generating 30,000 rides per week, and the group closed on $60 million recently from venture capital heavyweights Andreessen Horowitz to expand that growth even more. At the time of the sale of Zimride, 90 percent of Lyft’s 80-person team were working on Lyft, according to AllThingsD.

Zipcar, Zimride Team Up for Shared ZiptripsSo why did one service struggle to grow — despite time, effort and funds — while the other has sprouted like a weed in near record time? I think the answer can be found in the transportation infrastructure, and behavior, in the U.S.

In Europe, ride sharing networks have actually become quite popular. Carpooling.com says it has 4.7 million users in Europe. Blablacar says it expects to transport 10 million people in Europe by the end of 2013, and says soon its European users will be transporting about 600,000 passengers per month across the continent. For comparison’s sake, the Eurostar moves 900,000 passengers per month.

Part of the reason for this lies in the expensive nature of owning and driving a car in Europe. Europe’s transportation system can be generalized by:

  • Expensive to own a car.
  • Expensive to buy gas, and drive on toll roads or in congestion charge areas.
  • Cities and countries that are relatively closer together.
  • High volume cities where parking in cities is difficult and driving in cities is difficult due to traffic.
  • Public transportation networks that act as hubs of transportation for communities.

U.S.’s transportation system can be generalized by:

  • Not that expensive to own a car.
  • Many cities built around car commuters.
  • Not that expensive to buy gas and drive cars.
  • Depending on the city, parking is more accessible.

Obviously these are generalizations, as places like New York City, and San Francisco have decent public transportation, a shrinking amount of parking spaces and growing traffic.

Blablacar’s founder Frédéric Mazzella told me that recently Blablacar launched its service in Germany and has been seeing record growth in the country. In some German cities citizens had already been organically managing their own casual carpooling around train transportation hubs, so Blablacar only had to come in and make it an official service. Mazzella also told me that Blablacar isn’t necessarily interested in moving into the U.S., despite its success in Europe, because the U.S. market is still uncertain.

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