Find your way
Traffic congestion takes its toll on commuters and the environment in equal measures. GAVIN MYERS spoke to a local entrepreneur who wants to change that.
Have you taken a trip on one of the country’s major freeways recently? Especially in Joburg, Cape Town or Durban … Next time you do, when the traffic is standing still, obviously, have a look around. You’ll notice something quite shocking – the same thing Daniel Claassen noticed in 2008.
“My cousin and I were speaking about the traffic on the N1 and the fact that everyone’s driving on their own,” says the 29-year old managing member of FindaLift. “Another cousin was in a lift club through Old Mutual and she actually knew the people she was sharing with, which made us think: there was no way at the time for people to share lifts without actually knowing another person or a friend. There was no formal way to share journeys.”
And so a spark was ignited that would give this social and environmental entrepreneur both many a sleepless night and be something he knew he could develop to be his legacy.
That idea was to develop an online solution that would show people others travelling similar routes to them, and enable them to connect and share the journey. It means at least one less car on the roads, with thousands of rand saved in fuel and running costs and (literally) tonnes of CO2 emissions per year kept from the atmosphere.
“I did some research to see if I was being insane about the whole thing but I saw that in the United Kingdom and America this has been going on for ages,” says Claassen. “I also noticed that we are faced with similar issues; like road congestion, high petrol prices and so on. That all gave me the confirmation I needed to take the idea forward.”
The FindaLift concept has been refined over three years (original development started in 2009, with the website launched at the end of that year) and Claassen was adamant the concept was never to be a “taxi service provider” but a “travel service information provider”. He notes: “We don’t arrange lifts on behalf of other people, we show people who they can share with and it’s up to them to make the arrangements.”
The system has been designed to make the process as pain-free as possible. Private users register for free on FindaLift.co.za, providing preferences as specific as whether they allow smoking in their car. Once the member’s personal account has been created, they create journeys and search for matches. “The system uses mathematical algorithms and Google Maps API to match people going the same way and create journeys throughout the country. We even have trips going to Botswana and Zimbabwe. It takes less than a minute,” Claassen enthuses. Users can then view all matches and easily make contact with those they like through the system. The system currently has 7 300 active members.
Being the entrepreneur he is, Claassen didn’t only aim at the average Joe, launching private groups for business last year. After launching the public network, it was realised that there was a growing need for people to have private and more secure ways to find others to share with. “We built a framework that allowed us to create ‘private groups’ for companies on our network (websites with the company’s branding). When there are hundreds of employees at an office you need a system that can tell you that a guy on the seventh floor lives next door, and you didn’t even know it,” he laughs. This allows people to feel safe as access is restricted to only the employees of that organisation. Among others, FindaLift currently has Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town, and Menlyn Maine – South Africa’s first green city – using this system.
Of course, the concept is not without its challenges, security being one of the top ones. “People don’t want to share with strangers, so we try to educate them by giving safety tips for deciding when to share a journey,” he says “It’s also illegal to make a profit from ride sharing – it can invalidate your insurance. There is a lot of education involved.”
The biggest barrier, though, is trying to change people’s mindsets away from the private vehicle. “The reality is that it’s very difficult for the average person to change their mindset, travel behaviour and to give up seats in their car,” he says.
And, while they like the idea, formal ridesharing also does not form part of Government’s immediate integrated transport and sustainability plans in a way that it would make a real impact. “It is very popular overseas,” explains Claassen. “There’s a network in the UK that’s been running since 1998 with half a million people on it and in the US there’s a company similar to FindaLift which is very popular and gets millions in funding. But locally, ride sharing is not being punted as a sustainable transport option – we’re trying hard for people to see the case for the concept in South Africa.”
But, says Claassen, the response has been good and momentum has been building for a while. “There’s no book for creating this concept. The only way this can really work is if everyone’s talking about it.
“In 2008 people told me I was crazy and this would never work, but I was convinced it would and stuck with it through the difficulties. You have to jump and know you’re going to land somewhere.”
And with FindaLift, that would be in your ride-sharing partner’s passenger seat.