Taking it personally: individual travel planning in the online age
Entrepreneur Ali Clabburn, best known as the founder of liftshare.com, thinks that he has come up with a way of making personal travel planning much more widespread. His method is, he says, made both more cost-effective and user-friendly by using the internet, rather than the doorstep, and targeting employers, rather than individuals.
Ali Clabburn has been running liftshare.com, probably the UK’s best-known car sharing facilitator, since 1997, and now heads a company with over 20 full-time employees. And now he is branching out by offering personalised travel planning services that include car sharing, but are by no means limited to it. The new product, called myPTP, is something that Clabburn has been thinking about for around eight years now, he says, but has only really come together as a viable business opportunity in the past 18 months.
So why such a long gestation period? “It’s all about access to open data,” he explains. “This is such a brilliant thing… It gives us a tool that we have been dreaming about having for years.”
In the past couple of years things have really changed, Clabburn notes, with the data that he needs to make personal travel planning viable now widely and freely available. And this one fact has meant that he has been able to develop a transport planning tool that, he claims, can deliver all the benefits of personal travel planning at a fraction of the cost of ‘traditional’ PTP methods. “We are trying to fill a gap in the market by providing PTP that is much more affordable and much more effective,” he says. “Historically there have been barriers – primarily the very high cost of doing it the traditional way – which, at something like £50 per household, seems vastly expensive.”
This has often been the case because, generally, PTP projects have involved hiring and training armies of travel planners who then roam the streets, knocking on doors and trying to convince anyone who answers that they need advice on their transport needs. But Clabburn is trying to make the process as simple and cheap as possible by targeting employers. He cites the example of one company employee, trained to use the myPTP technology, simply talking to each of his colleagues individually, noting down their home postcode and, by just inputting the data into an iPad, being able in just a couple of minutes to give them detailed advice on their various journey to work options. Alternatively, he says, when a large employer is relocating large numbers of staff, for example, the business can carry out a bulk upload of staff home address details and then myPTP can simply email each employee a list of his or her sensible travel options. Wakefield City Metropolitan District Council, for example, is currently in the process of moving 1,200 staff into a new ‘one-stop shop’ in the town centre and is providing each member of staff with a personal travel plan provided by myPTP. “Pilots showed 21% of users receiving a myPTP travel plan changed, or are considering changing, their travel behaviours,” Clabburn says. “One of the best things about it is that car sharing is not sexy – decision-makers just don’t think about it – but with PTP there is something for everybody, even if you drive yourself to work every day.”
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The essentially automated nature of the product also means, Clabburn adds, that it is much easier to keep continually engaged with recipients of PTPs than has hitherto been the case, for example by emailing updated plans to relevant users when a bus route changes, or is cancelled. “Public transport operators are really excited about this,” he claims. “They have traditionally found it hard to engage with their potential users but now, at a transport roadshow, say, someone can come to us, get a personal travel plan and then go to the very next stand to buy a discounted bus ticket.”
Clabburn is well aware that the automated PTP system he has come up with will not be a panacea for everybody’s transport problems, but he stresses that his new product is intended to be just the first stage of an ongoing process. “We are wording the first emails to say that, if you are starting from a certain postcode then these are the options that are generally available to you but that, if you are elderly or disabled or have to do the school run en route or something like that then come and talk to us. It’s basically a conversation starter.”
The main flaw in the myPTP product that Clabburn acknowledges is that, at present, it has no information on the financial costs of the travel options indicated. And, in spite of the main public transport operators’ supposed enthusiasm for the product, it is their intransigence that is holding things back, he says. “Cost data is incredibly hard to get hold of,” he concedes. “But access to this data helps people make informed decisions. They (the transport operators) should be giving this to us because it is offputting for potential users not to know how much a journey is going to cost.”
Private individuals are not being deliberately targeted by liftshare.com for myPTP simply because of the cost of so doing. When it comes to the company’s core business, of arranging car sharing opportunities for its users, individual users are an important market segment, however, making up about 25% of liftshare.com’s user base. “We try to use our network of corporate and local authority clients to spread the word,” Clabburn explains. “It is very hard, for example, to promote car sharing to individuals by getting a national publication to say anything about it, because they are much more interested in new technology, expensive toys and so on. That being said, however, when we do get any good media coverage we are now using social media a lot to spread the word.”
After suggesting that using liftshare.com saves its individual customers something like £500,000 a day in motoring costs, but that the company doesn’t make any money out of this, as it runs the scheme on a break even basis for individuals, Clabburn turns to the market area where he makes his money – selling car sharing schemes to corporate clients.
The price of sharing
“Our business plan should be a win-win business plan,” he explains. “The key driver for our corporate customers is parking issues, meaning that when the economy is growing employers start taking on more people but they don’t want to have to spend more on more car parking spaces. And when the economy is shrinking businesses will downsize to smaller premises with smaller car parks, so everybody should be interested in car sharing plans.”
This rosy scenario didn’t actually play out quite as Clabburn had anticipated in the recession. “When the recession hit a lot of corporate customers said we’re not spending any money on anything – even if it is going to save us money,” he says. “We found ourselves talking to people who simply said that they weren’t allowed to spend any money on anything, so we have had to work very hard to demonstrate the cost benefits of car sharing to people over the past few years.”
One reason why this happened, the financial crisis aside, Clabburn explains, is that: “90% of staff would be very happy to consider car sharing but the decision-makers at companies don’t generally share cars, so we have had to get better at being very clear of the financial benefits of car sharing when we talk to people – for example by making sure that we talk to the financial team, and not just the facilities manager.”
And this approach seems to be paying off, Clabburn observes. “We have recently been seeing a huge surge in the number of corporate clients we’ve got,” he says. “There was a year of very little when the recession kicked in but in the last 12-18 months things have started to pick up and some big players have come on board this summer.”
And the public sector also required some work to keep them aware of the benefits of car sharing, Clabburn says. “About a year later [after private sector clients started feeling the pinch] a lot of local authorities faced cuts – and we started getting calls from them saying that they needed to cut their budgets by 50%, but our answer to this was that we are already running your schemes at cost, so how can we cut costs any further?”
Things appear to have turned around here, too, and Clabburn is pretty bullish about the prospects for future growth. “National Grid got half their staff signed up in a matter of weeks,” he says. “And several of the big energy companies are now coming on board. In fact, a new scheme is coming on stream every week at the moment.”
Explaining just how big the market could be, at least in theory, Clabburn refers to a recent survey by the AA that revealed that 48% of motorists would at least consider sharing their car. “That’s a huge market, bearing in mind that less than 10% of people do car share to work at the moment, so the potential market is absolutely enormous. There are 32 million motorists in the UK, remember.”
Once liftshare.com has got people car sharing it then has to keep them doing it, of course. “But the retention levels are amazing,” Clabburn says. “90% of people sharing a car today will still be doing so in a year’s time. Our average member saves just under £1,000 a year – which is a huge amount of money, particularly when, according to the RAC, the average family spend £6,500 on their car a year. Money is by far the primary motivator for people starting to car share.”
The company’s biggest headache isn’t individual users trying car sharing but then abandoning it, but, rather, the turnover rate of car share managers at corporate and public sector clients. “We train them to become behaviour change experts and then six months later they move to another job,” Clabburn explains. “So we have to invest a huge amount of time and effort training a new person, and this person will also tend not to have such a sense of ownership as the person who helped us set up the scheme.
“Very normal people share cars,” he goes on. “It’s just getting people to try it, but the zeitgeist now is all about sharing, rather than owning, with more people signing up for online services that enable them to rent out rooms in their house, for example. People are getting over the need to own everything and remember that cars are most people’s second most valuable asset but are used on average for just 4% of the time.”
Still, not every ‘gets’ the benefits of car sharing, Clabburn acknowledges. His company tried hard to promote car sharing as a good way to travel to the London Olympics this summer but got nowhere, for example. “We tried really hard to work with the Olympic Delivery Authority but the Olympics were being promoted as the public transport games, and so they didn’t want to do anything to encourage people to travel by car, but it is very frustrating that car sharing is still seen to be as bad as travelling individually in your car, because, amongst other things, a car with four people in it is more energy efficient than any other mode of transport.”
Clabburn also expresses some frustration at the lack of progress developing high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in the UK. “We have almost given up lobbying government on HOV lanes,” he says. “Their effectiveness is blindingly obvious and everybody in government always agrees with us on this but then nothing ever happens. One of our hardest challenges is to try and change the mindset of transport modellers. At the moment all modelling is done in terms of moving numbers of cars, not numbers of people, despite the obvious advantages of increasing car occupancy levels.”
On a more optimistic note, Clabburn suggests that the Government’s Social Value Act, which is due to become law next January, could be a boost for car sharing. This Act, he explains, will require local authorities to look beyond simply cost when tendering for services, which means that, if a potential service provider offers community benefit beyond the contract specification, for example by running a car sharing scheme, then this should be taken into account by the authority in deciding where to award a contract.
Clabburn is also going to be rather busy in the coming months organising liftshare.com’s office move from the small town of Attleborough, a few miles outside Norwich, to a building in the city itself. “We did an environmental assessment and discovered that the only area where we didn’t do really well was transport,” Clabburn explains, laughing. “Only two of us live in Attleborough but 20 of us live in Norwich, so it seemed only right to move.”
And finally… there have been rumours for some time that liftshare.com was looking at getting into the business of allowing car owners to hire out their vehicles to strangers. Which would seem to be natural extension of the company’s business – after all, if you are prepared to let someone you don’t know sit in the passenger seat of your car, the logical next step is surely to let them drive!
Clabburn was not particularly forthcoming on this project, however, beyond acknowledging that he is examining the potential of this idea. “It is a very interesting idea,” he admits. “But it is far too early for us to be talking to the press about it at the moment.”