“Collaborative Consumption is still an elite movement. We need to break that.” Markus Barnikel, Carpooling, an idea that three German MBA students came up with in 2001, has now grown into an international company that moves over 1 million people each month. Benjamin Tinq spoke to CEO Markus Barnikel about the European ridesharing market and intelligent mobility concepts of the future

During one of his recent trips to Paris, Markus Barnikel, 41, tells me the story of the beginnings of while sitting on a comfortable couch at Mutinerie Coworking. In 2011 he took the leadership of the company upon the request of its three founders: Stefan Weber, Matthias Siedler and Michael Reinicke had developed the platform Mitfahrgelegenheit (the German word for “ride share”) during their MBA years in Munich.

At first it was a student project with the aim to create an online version of the “Mitfahrzentrale” bulletin boards and an alternative to the ridesharing agencies that were scattered across Germany. Today, the website counts 4.3 million registered users in 9 European markets and overall, moves 1.1 million people every month across 40 countries. 

When I met the three founders, I had the same feeling I had when I joined Yahoo in 1999, at a time when people said, “the internet is just a fad, it’s for an urban elite, people will not buy it”. Today I’m hearing the same thing about collaborative consumption, and I think the story will repeat itself again.

The slow lane to ridesharing momentum

If you want to introduce people to the concept of collaborative consumption and demonstrate its potential, ridesharing is certainly one the most compelling examples. Especially France and Germany, two countries where the concept has been around for the longest time, and have been pioneers in this field over the last ten years. “In France, I see a lot of government initiatives encouraging shared mobility, such as Velib, Autolib… whereas in Germany, it’s much more consumer-driven: people expect companies to offer services that reduce CO2 emissions and lower traffic.”

From a historical perspective, Poland is also an interesting market. During the communist era, the country lacked the infrastructure to move citizens across the country. Hence, the government encouraged hitchhiking with dedicated spots where people could meet. Now, these people can book their trip in advance and choose with whom they want to share a ride.

But Carpooling is already looking beyond European borders. The American market is the size of Europe, but very fragmented and tough to address. However cities with established public transport networks such as NYC, San Francisco or Seattle have a lot of potential as pickup and drop-off points for ridesharing. “We want to go there, we are simply waiting for the right time to do it”, says Barnikel.

Collaborative Consumption is still an elite movement.
We need to break that.

In all countries, ridesharing is also being driven by the global collaborative consumption movement. Ubiquitous access to the internet through smartphones and the economic crisis have played an important role in opening people’s minds to sharing again. “People are willing to pay for a service that helps them save a lot of money, is convenient, good for the environment and enables them to meet people… All users have different motivations, but altogether the concept is compelling to a large number of people.”

Making P2P and B2C partnerships work 

Last year, Carpooling received a $10M investment from Daimler AG, as a minority shareholder. The car manufacturer has been experimenting in the mobility space for several years, with the launch of carsharing service Car2go and investments in smart mobility apps such as MyTaxi and delivery service Tiramizoo.

“Daimler really understands that a shift is happening in mobility, and that sharing a car is a whole new way of looking at ownership”, explains Barnikel. In Europe, on average only 1.2 out of 5 car seats are filled. Ridesharing allows for a much better use of our cars capacity. This is an effective way to reduce problems of traffic, noise, CO2, parking spots…without the huge upfront investments of setting up new train or bus lines. “Our platform solves these problems with existing infrastructures. This is a very compelling offer for car manufacturers.”

Furthermore, shared mobility is an opportunity for manufacturers to reach customers they would not otherwise. “Among the 70 people working at our office in Munich, only one has a car. The others come either by bicycle, by foot or with public transportation”, Barnikel has observed. Many of these people, like many others, are willing to use, or even buy a car, if they can share it.

The Daimler investment will allow Carpooling to work on three specific areas: improving the technical product and customer service, and developing a platform for mobility that crosses nations and borders.

The future of transport is intermodal

Car manufacturers are not the only large companies that Carpooling is partnering with. Their aim is to take mobility far beyond ridesharing, which is why they are very open to offering other means of transport on their platform. Carpooling already allows you to book train, bus and plane tickets, and is discussing with carsharing companies (both b2c and p2p).

Two years ago, Carpooling made an agreement with Deutsche Bahn and is now the second largest seller of train tickets in Germany after the Deutsche Bahn itself. Since then they have partnered with other transport companies such as Eurolines and Air Berlin. Their objective is to establish similar partnerships in France, in Italy, and basically every market they operate in.

“The vision for our company is to provide intelligent mobility all across the planet”, states Barnikel.

“This can be done through many forms of transportation, and that’s we are trying to do on the platform.” He envisions a social, intermodal system that allows people to book all steps of their trip with one integrated service. In his view such a system will allow people to compare different types of transportation based on different criteria such as price, time or CO2 emissions, and ultimately enable them to instantly book all the tickets for their trip on one platform, including the last miles of their trip (door-to-door).

Establishing these partnerships is not easy though. Any startup willing to engage with a large company to integrate their data must often deal with reactions that are common in the open data scene: the fear of competition, and the unwillingness to share an API data feed that is not considered good enough. “But in the end, mobility operators have come to realize that we are giving them access to entirely new customer segments. It’s sheer numbers: when I tell them we are moving 1.1 million of people per month, most companies are baffled”, explains Barnikel.

Real-time ridesharing will work through long-distance ridesharing

What about dynamic, on-demand ridesharing? Recently, we have seen a lot of excitement about services such as Lyft or Sidecar, which help people find rides for short distances in urban areas. However, according to Barnikel, “Even if a technology is ready, that does not mean that users are asking for it.” Dynamic ridesharing is indeed technically fascinating, but in real life it requires a huge amount of critical mass to work. “This is something we will consider implementing when we feel we have reached such critical mass.”


Markus Barnikel will be a speaker at OuiShare Fest, the first european festival about the collaborative economy on May 2-3-4 in Paris.