Traffic in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, is a nightmare. Commuters are especially harried during the evening rush hour, with the average 30-minute drive often lasting over an hour. The Turkish urban metropolis has been ranked as the “most congested city in the world” with an estimated 125 hours wasted per person per year stuck in traffic.
And this is not a problem which can be solved by the construction of new roads and highways alone. Over 3 million cars ply the city’s roads, with an estimated 30,000 new ones joining the jams every month. Public transportation isn’t up to par with other urban megacities – the underground subway network in Istanbul covers only a sparse 138 kilometres and buses are frequently caught up in the jams.
For Ali Halabi, founder of Volt, the problem of traffic congestion irritated him constantly. “Two and a half years ago I was stuck in traffic. I was angry about paying all this money for gas, parking and then not being able to drive […]. I started counting all the cars on the road which had one driver like me and I realized eight out of ten cars had only the driver.”
“This is why we have traffic – everyone drives alone. A city of millions cannot move this way and that’s how the idea came to life,” he explains.
Hitching a ride
Volt is an inner-city ridesharing app with the vision of curing Istanbul of its traffic woes. It connects drivers with people going in the same direction. Passengers pay for the cost of the ride only. Ali stresses that Volt doesn’t allow drivers to turn this into a business model, the way Uber and Lyft operate, but it incentivizes people to pick up other passengers because costs such as maintenance and gas can be covered. He says this is a real problem in Istanbul because car owners spend, on average, approximately 18 percent of their income on their car, but only use it 4 percent of the time. This costs the Turkish government approximately US$2.2 billion in wasted resources per annum.
Just crossing the Bosphorous is really tough – that’s the problem I want to solve. Public transportation can take two hours, but at the same time there are many people going in private transport – why not connect them?
Volt, which first launched in October last year, currently has 17,000 users, with approximately 58 percent of those consisting of drivers. Ali explains one of the reasons they’ve been able to scale is their focus on residential communities and universities. “People trust each other if they share a common element. To validate the idea I tried hitchhiking inside a residential compound, and everyone offered a ride. Similarly, university students trust each other – if you have a campus ID you can join that particular community on Volt and it’s worked very well,” he says.
The app is fairly straightforward. When you launch it, it gives an option of viewing details in either “driver” or “passenger” modes. As a passenger, you can request a ride on the app and schedule a time – either now or for later. Once that’s done, you tap “find a car”, and the app gives you the location of cars close by in real time. Those within two kilometers of a passenger’s location will be notified. As a driver, all you have to do is simply, well, drive. If a passenger requests a ride, there will be a popup notification. You can choose to accept or ignore. If you choose to accept, a predetermined fare will be calculated by Volt, which the passenger will pay through his or her credit card.
Cheaper than UberGo
Volt’s rates are predetermined and calculated on a per-kilometer basis. Ali says rides are, on average, 70 percent cheaper than regular taxis and they have the bandwidth to eventually cater to a community of 100,00 drivers. Specifically with regards to UberGO, Volt is about 50 percent cheaper and costs approximately 0.6 TKR (US$0.21) per kilometer.
The entrepreneur outlines how the model is safe, trustworthy, efficient, and reliable. There were naysayers in the beginning, as people believed the trust barrier would be crucial for Volt to overcome, but the startup has largely managed to navigate that. “Educating the market is an everyday challenge, but what people have realized is that through us, you would know more about your passenger than you ever would about your taxi driver. Furthermore, it’s safe, as there’s GPS tracking, all driving licenses are verified, and we have personal records of both the driver and passenger. If I’m a criminal, this is the last place I’d want to be,” he states.
Ali often stresses how Volt is very different from online taxi and car apps such as Uber. He’s very clear in his vision of solving traffic problems in Istanbul and says his startup is doing that far more efficiently than an online taxi service. “Our positioning is that we’re solving traffic – we’re filling empty seats and reducing the number of cars on the road. They [Uber] are not filling empty seats, they’re not solving traffic. That’s a very, very delicate positioning.”
Volt has raised US$500,000 in angel and seed investment so far, with the government also weighing in with a grant. The startup takes a 20 percent cut from each fare.
Do you live in a city with high traffic congestion? What do you do to overcome the problem? Let us know in the comments!
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