Friday, February 28, 2014

French car-sharing service set to arrive in Indy… Success or failure?

Autolib’ arrives in Indianapolis

On June 10, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard joined forces with civic and business leaders to announce the 2014 launch of an electric car-sharing service led by the French company Bolloré.

This initiative is part of a bigger plan for the city of Indianapolis to replace its fleet with all hybrids and plug-in vehicles by as early as 2025.
Autolib’ was launched in Paris by Bolloré in December 2011. It's going down a storm in Paris, the company's latest figures showing its 1,800 Bluecars have taken over 2 million trips through Paris since late 2011, with 82,000 subscriptions sold. Just 11 months ago, those figures were half a million trips and 37,000 subscriptions.

Cars can be reserved by smartphone and picked up using an access card swiped against a reader on the windshield--the cars in Indy will use a similar system.
What Indianapolis won't be getting is a fleet of Bolloré Bluecars like those used in Paris. Instead, Autolib' plans to use either the Ford Focus Electric, or the familiar Nissan Leaf, as part of its car-sharing service. Both are more suitable for U.S. roads (and indeed, legal and federalized for U.S. use) rather than the French electric vehicle.
Mayor Ballard hopes the service will attract more international visitors to the city and raise its profile--providing an easy and inexpensive way for travelers to move about.

Strong potential
I strongly believe in the potential of this car-sharing service, but several obstacles lay on the road to make Indy Autolib’ a success.
First of all, unlike Paris and other US cities such as San Francisco or Portland (Oregon) which have a robust public transit system, Indianapolis is not known for providing good public transport.
In Paris, Autolib’ is more of a (private) enhancement and addition to public transportation, not a substitution. If you have ever ridden on the crowded metro or bus in Paris, you have had to endure the body odors emanating from your fellow commuters or have been forced into body-to-body positions like you are dancing the Salsa; you understand that renting a car to go from Point A to Point B would be a nice alternative. However, Paris being so vast, you won’t find Autolib’ kiosks in every part of the city, hence the need to eventually juggle between public transit and renting a car. Besides, traffic is horrifying in the French capital. Driving a car in Paris, even if your name is Dario Franchitti, can be as scary as eating frog legs or escargots for a Midwesterner.

The bottom line is that Hoosiers are not big consumers of any type of public transportation. Renting a car is a common practice for Americans while vacationing, but not for short in-city drives. The Midwestern culture of owning and driving a car is very much anchored in our daily commuting habits. Hoosiers don’t use public transportation if they can drive a car. Selling a car-sharing concept like Autolib’ to Indianapolis residents will be challenging in that regards.
Visitors and convention-goers are expected to be a major segment for Autolib’. For instance, the average cost of renting a car through Autolib’ is about $6-8 for a 20-minute ride. A visitor arriving at the Indianapolis airport will see a benefit vs. taking a $35-$40 cab ride to a downtown hotel. Easy to pick up the car at a kiosk at the airport and drop it off at the JW station downtown.

However, Autolib’ can’t be a stand-alone service in Indianapolis as it is in Paris to be vastly successful (for the reasons described above).  In my mind, it has to be integrated into a much larger global product offering. It has to be part of the visitor experience or the downtown business experience. The visitor experience can start with Autolib’ at the airport (Point A), but should not end at the drop off location downtown (Point B). Autolib’s should be linked to other services and products that create the visitor experience (hospitality, events, businesses…), should be one of the platforms to access an array of services available to visitors and business people.

It is great to have an innovative service such as Autolib’ here in our conservative Indianapolis, but transposing the Paris model of Autolib’ to Indianapolis won’t be as successful if it is not part of a much bigger offering.

What do you think?  Will you use Autolib’?  I have some ideas that I would be glad to share to make it a success.

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