There was a time when going into town meant asking your neighbor to hitch a ride on a horse-drawn wagon. Resources were shared, stories were told, and journeys were experienced with others. Today, in Italy, as throughout Europe, public and private transportation have become quite expensive. We are members of an infinitely more mobile population than we could have envisioned a hundred years ago. The small village in which neighbors helped neighbors has been replaced by a vast network of roads filled with motorcycles and cars, a bus and train system that connects every major city, and airplanes that transport thousands of travelers every day.
But for many, this is also a time of economic limitations. Transportation is expensive, so, as with most problems, people are turning to the internet for answers. Sites like the European BlaBlaCar provide a rideshare platform for people who are driving to connect with people needing rides, making the cost lower for both driver and passenger(s). This collaboration brings people together to connect and communicate in real space and real time rather than simply via separate screens, a revolutionary act in an age where social media is accused of fostering isolation. BlaBlaCar has created a system that embraces technology while simultaneously re-creating a centuries-old model, hearkening back to a time in which villages were built of people who knew, helped, and looked out for each other: a unique melding of technology and tradition.
As much as I embrace my technologically advanced generation, I place a high value on face-to-face time with others and seeing places with my own eyes. This means that I travel a lot, seeking out new experiences and friendships. I have needed to find ways to do this form of exploring by the cheapest means possible. Unsurprisingly, it was my network of similarly struggling twentysomethings that introduced me to BlaBlaCar as one way to support my personal and professional interests.
For those who are unfamiliar: BlaBlaCar is an online platform designed to connect drivers with potential passengers traveling on similar journeys. Drivers set a price for passengers to help with the costs of tolls and petrol, allowing passengers to pay what amounts to a fraction of corresponding train prices. The idea was conceived of by Frédéric Mazzella in 2003 in France and then BlaBlaCar was founded officially in 2006. As of spring 2015, it is a company valued at more than 100 million euros and functions in seventeen countries total, ranging from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands, and including Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and, most recently, India and Mexico. Italy had its own version of a rideshare scheme, originated in 2010, but in 2012 it joined the international network that is BlaBlaCar.
Though France and Spain charge drivers a 10-11% commission and the UK is moving in that direction, most of the other countries where the company operates have not yet required payment. But even since I completed my trips for this project, it has been announced that Italy is changing their payment policy: starting with the route between Genoa and Milan, BlaBlaCar users will be making monetary transactions entirely online (no longer with cash exchanged between drivers and passengers), which, of course, comes with a commission for the company. There are still suggested prices for each driver to post, with a maximum price cap to maintain the spirit of a shared economy.
I decided to explore the idea of an online community becoming a real one, and how this transportation system is akin to the shared economies of historical communities, by traveling from city to city solely with BlaBlaCar. My weeklong adventure was divided into two trips: the first a loop throughout northern Italy and the second a journey from the northeastern region of Veneto to the southwestern region of Campania and back again.
Prior to each trip, I initiated communication with each potential driver by explaining my project, in Italian:
I am an American photographer and I work at Fabrica in Treviso. I'm doing a project on BlaBlaCar, why people use it, and how the internet has facilitated the contact and exchange between people, including in our travel needs. It seems to me that we may be re-creating an older model of a village with the internet.
I am going from town to town with multiple BlaBlaCar drivers, photographing the drivers, their cars, the places where they meet their passengers, etc. I want to tell the story of the people with whom I share my journey, to tell about the BlablaCar microworld that is created throughout the trips.
What do you think? Are you interested and willing to help me with this project?
I got a variety of initial responses, ranging from no reply to those saying they like the idea but are too private or didn’t have enough time in their travel plans, to passive agreement, and to enthusiastic participation.
Though participants predictably told me that the largest draw to BlaBlaCar was the financial advantage, many of them agreed that it was nice to have the opportunity to meet people they wouldn’t normally meet, to have people to talk to on what would otherwise be solitary journeys. Because I only chose drivers who had already agreed to be part of this discussion of the use of BlaBlaCar as a communal experience, our conversations were necessarily skewed. Nevertheless, I observed several rides that were purely economical; rides with people like Vito and his other two passengers, each from Naples but working in Rome, traveling back and forth between two cities once a week or twice a month. On that particular ride, we all barely spoke to one another, outside of the to-be-expected “where are you from?” and “what do you do for work?” questions, while passengers Francesco and Chiara silently texted and perused their phones. I dozed in and out of consciousness on the night ride, appreciative--after a day of traveling/conversing with strangers in a semi-professional mode--of the limited interaction requirements of these three uninterested Italians who spoke little to no English.
But I also met a number of folks who enjoy the communal aspect. Alessandro, who has been using the Italian rideshare service for four years, told me he always asks his passengers to choose from his CDs as a kind of personality test based on what music they choose. (Of course, this statement immediately made me self-conscious about what choosing The Velvet Underground says about me.) Responses like his made me wonder if this community concept is more important for the driver than for the passengers, who have a less demanding travel experience of being able to sleep or zone out, without needing to stay alert on the road.
Many Italians were traveling in the rideshare to facilitate work trips, including some of the drivers. Matías, originally from Argentina and living in Italy for more than a decade, is an actor who was traveling from Florence to Rome for an audition. He and I spoke in a mix of Italian and English while the other two passengers mostly slept in the backseat, delving into such topics as the differences between North or South American and Italian cultures, and the attitudes in Italy about religion and sexuality. On other rides, as someone whose knowledge about those in the military is based on American stereotypes, I was surprised by how many users, drivers and passengers both, work in the Italian military: in my combined fifteen trips, I traveled with two drivers and four passengers in careers related to the armed forces.
The trips were certainly not all work-related. Wim was driving from his home in Turin all the way to Munich to visit his wife and eleven year-old daughter where the two live while the daughter attends an intensive ballet school. That trip (Turin to Milan) was properly international: in addition to my American representation, Wim is Dutch, Juliana is from Colombia, and Chiara filled the role of the requisite Italian. (Similarly internationally, on the ride with Alessandro, two of my fellow passengers, Sha Sha and Hueng, are students on an exchange program from China.) On another trip, a couple in the car, Christine and her French boyfriend Benoit, is from Corsica. They had been traveling almost exclusively by BlaBlaCar during a vacation in Italy. The night was pouring rain and the humidity accentuated the smell of their clearly wine-fueled travels.
Most of the drivers have been ridesharing like this for at least one year, and just a few for more than three years. However, Vincenzo, a nurse moving to Florence for a new job, had never used the site before, making me his first (and on that ride, only) passenger. Providing his inaugural experience was interesting for both of us, as he said he appreciated being able to practice English. I assured him that not every passenger would be asking to photograph him--nor were his next passengers likely to be American.
A few people who had never heard of the site before I explained my project to them had concerns about my safety in this travel (mainly my parents). In addition to passengers’ and drivers’ reviews of each other on their profiles, the site requires verification of emails and phone numbers in order for users to connect to others, and verification of bank accounts in some countries. And for women who are particularly nervous about traveling with strangers, it is possible to choose “BlaBlaCar Pink,” which allows female passengers to travel with only female drivers. I can understand the draw to that service; though thankfully it was only one three hour ride, I did travel as the sole passenger with a man who showed me around his hometown for an extra hour and a half beyond our arrival time, while I felt struggled with the polite way to express in my non-fluent Italian that I wanted to be done with the encounter.
As in every travel experience, there is a high potential for practical malfunction, particularly in a setting like BlaBlaCar in which it’s a group of strangers coming together, basically blindly trusting each other. Sure, there are the reviews and feedback on the website, but ten good reviews doesn’t mean there won’t be one bad one. Of course there are always unpredictable situations for which no one can be held responsible, as when I had to scramble one day to make up for one driver’s canceled trip due to sudden health problems in his family. In another instance, though, I lost an entire day of traveling for the project due to the shifting plans of drivers: I was waiting to hear back from several potential drivers about one leg of a trip and in the interim the driver I had tentatively secured for the next leg of the trip had to secure other passengers, disrupting the whole chain of trips.
To return to my question about a shared economy and a community functioning either together or not: if something operates because a group of people work together to make it so, as BlaBlaCar does to provide cheaper travel for all those involved, it can be thought of as simply a group of random humans coming together for the sake of modern survival. But if the experience is also deepened through conversing and connecting with strangers along the way, does it become a kind of tribe, a community brought together by the power of modern technology, even if only for a few hours? What is the benefit of traveling with others aside from passing the time and not being alone in an interim time and space? Just the simple act of sharing the time and space in an intentional fashion contributes to a communal experience, and providing for each others’ needs, even if only financially, is a minor but potentially enriching influence in supporting a basic desire for our tribal selves.
Below is a timelapse video tracing one part of my journey, from Treviso to Naples:
This work was produced March 2015 and is sponsored by Fabrica Research Centre.
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