RidePal and the Private Bus Wars: Q&A with Founder Nathalie Criou

12/18/13Follow @wroush

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larger organizations. A lot of these larger corporations have a lot of cash. They have options. They could definitely afford to do this themselves. But the logistics associated with running this sort of service are pretty big. And a lot of these companies don’t want to take that on.

X: You don’t own any buses, right? You are contracting for the buses from logistics and transportation companies.

NC: From bus operators, exactly. These operators have the expertise to hire drivers, maintain buses, make sure they will be cleaned properly. They have a lot of expertise that we don’t have, and I don’t see why we would want to duplicate.

X: To really deal with traffic and the health effects of commuting and have a serious impact on energy use, you would need to get hundreds of thousands of people out of their cars and onto buses. Do you see signs that there is a larger movement here? It would require awareness by consumers, and more convenience and access. Maybe some regulatory changes on the part of the cities you are moving through. And of course, demand on the part of corporate customers. What signs do you see that this is happening?

NC: On the consumer side, all the signs point in this direction. I think there is a general shift in how people see the car. It’s much more of a utility. So if other tools are available that provide the same utility, that they find more convenient or less stressful or less wasteful, people are much more open. We have several users who have told us they chose not to buy a car after they moved here. For a long time people have hated to commute in traffic, but they were not thinking that there could be an alternative. So we definitely see no problem with people adopting this if it is available.

We are having a lot of conversations with cities, and cities seem to have a different problem. They tend to have two major constituents: they have residents, who also happen to be voters, and then they have businesses, who are the economic engines of the city. And both are equally important. The problem is, there tends to be a tension between the two, because residents want less traffic and businesses tend to need more traffic if they want to keep on hiring and growing.

So cities are exploring ways they can allow businesses to grow and basically conduct more business, and remain competitive, without increasing the negative aspects or the impact on their residents. So it’s an interesting problem. There is no formal program, but there is definitely a lot of conversations. And not just in the Bay Area. We have had cities from other parts of California or other states who have made inquiries. So this is an interesting area.

X: What kinds of cooperation from cities would make a difference for a company like yours? Do you need special permission, for example, to set up a bus stop, or just to send the buses down city streets?

NC: This is happening already, in every case. We always reach out to the cities or the public transportation authorities in each city, because we want to make sure we are not actually making things worse when we want to make them better. Usually it just takes conversation and understanding the areas of concern on both sides. So far, we haven’t really run into a lot of problems.

San Francisco is taking a very aggressive approach. They are bringing everyone to the table. Everyone recognizes that there is limited availability of curb space, which is a rare resource. So we need to work together to determine how we can make the best use of it to better serve the public.

X: I’m sure you saw the study that Stamen Design did. To me, what was striking about the maps they produced is that there is this parallel world of commuting evolving right alongside everyone else who is still driving. If you are lucky enough to work for a big company like Apple, Google, Facebook, or Yahoo, you have this alternative available to you. It’s almost like this ghost transportation infrastructure is arising, but it’s not available to a lot of people. I’m wondering what messages or thoughts you come away with when you look at the Stamen map. Is this being managed in a way that, on the whole, is going to improve urban life, or make it even more unequal?

NC: I think there are different aspects to this. What is striking about this map is the sheer volume of services. For companies that have the means to do it—which tend to be newer Internet companies with a lot of cash reserves that they can put to use for this—it’s a very, very used perquisite. It’s very highly valued [by employees]. They are doing this because it’s working.

X: Well, in many cases, it’s the only way that their employees can live in they place where they want and work at the company they want to work for.

NC: Exactly. If anything, it’s an illustration of need. Initially you don’t have an alternative, so they have to do it themselves and it’s a very inefficient and expensive way to do it. But they have no choice because there is nothing else. And then I think this is a trigger. People say, oh, look at that, something is happening.

It’s hard to stop the direction these companies are going. I think the best we can do is follow that evolution in a direction that is going to be sustainable, that is going to be socially responsible.

X: But the openness of the system is a concern. Your system is obviously more open than the Google bus—anybody who wants to take it can get on. But you still need to be able to pay. And you need to know where the bus is going to show up. You need to be able to go online and see the routes. So, if this is going to be a solution that really contributes in a long-term way to sustainability and lowering emissions and all of that, is there a way to scale it up and make it more accessible? Is that something you think about very much?

NC: That’s the whole reason we founded the company! Commuting is just one use case. It’s a very powerful one because it is the number one cause of emissions. We’re talking about millions and millions of people around the globe, every single day. When people commute, they go to a job. And if a solution like RidePal or public transit wasn’t available, they would still have to find a way to pay to get to their job.

So I think it’s not so much about payment, it’s about how much do you charge. And whenever you have scale and you have volume, your ability to charge less and less increases, while still making a very comfortable profit. So it’s very common that any new industry will start with the most acute need, with people who have a higher willingness to pay, because … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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