Can rail workers’ strikes change French commuting habits?

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“A strike. Think of carpooling”, suggest electronic signs along the highway to France’s city Lyon. Photo: Jurgita Simeleviciene

While France’s state-owned railway company’s SNCF workers are on the major strike, French are transforming their commuting habits and showing more support to government’s plans to reform the company.

“A strike. Think of carpooling”, recommend electronic-message signs along France’s highways. With rail workers gone on a three-month strike, it is what French are forced to do.

State-owned rail operator SNCF workers have been on a major strike since April 3. Train services across the country have been disrupted every two days out of five. The strike will continue until the end of June as trade unions are opposing France president Emmanuel Macron’s plans to transform loss-generating railway company.

Carpooling services hit record high

Since the beginning of the strike people are changing their travel habits. Carpooling and carsharing companies have been recording unprecedented growth. The world’s leading carpooling company Blablacar claims that  April was the most successful month in the history due to the SNCF strike. Two million people, both passengers and drivers, used carpooling service in one month. On the first days of the strike the demand of a long-distance carpooling service was 6 times higher compared with the demand on an average day. Furthermore, in one month 350,000 new users, an equivalent of the city of Nice, had signed in.

“We continue to see twice as much activity as usual”, Nicolas Brusson, co-founder and CEO of Blablacar said.

Blablacar company claims that drivers respond to the call for help as the number of seats offered in April reached 4.3 million, almost twice as much as usual. However, no price increase was recorded.

As the strike continues, commuters are those who suffer the most. It’s no wonder that company’s app BlaBlaLines for short trips from home to work has experienced even bigger growth with 10 times more carpools on the first days of the strike. Other app for short-distance trips Karos reported 2 times as many visitors to the site.

Given these numbers, hardly surprising that carpooling companies hope the strike could contribute to the change of French commuting habits. French are very dependent on trains as 3.2 million passengers commuted by local trains daily in 2016, showed the report of the French Regulatory Authority for Rail and Road Activities. 

Nevertheless, Karos co-founder Olivier Binet revealed to France Info radio station that 68% of users who tried carpooling for the first time during the strike, continued using this service later on.

“Two-thirds of new users continue to carpool on days when there is no strike. They noticed that they save time – 24 minutes on average”, Olivier Binet said.

President of Blablacar Frederic Mazzella also expects that the strike could contribute to changing behavior towards shared mobility on daily trips.

Carpooling companies are not the only ones that benefit from trains’ stoppages. Ridesharing app Uber, navigation app Waze, car renting service Ouicar, an intercity bus line Flixbus are among those seeing a significant increase in demand.

Public opinion supports Macron

Although French are famous for their love to strike, it seems that this time people are getting tired of a train service disruption.

While the strike continues to cause inconvenience to commuters, Macron’s reform is gaining a public support. Six of ten French (60%) believe strikes against SNCF reform are unjustified, revealed the new Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting’s survey for the newspaper Le Figaro and France Info which was announced on Thursday, 24 May.

Moreover, 65% of respondents think that the government should implement the reform as planned, according to a weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche, which published a survey conducted by a market research firm Ifop. It is a big change compared with 51% at the beginning of the strike.

The French government aims to make SNCF more competitive by abolishing the special employment status of rail workers, who are entitled to a lifelong employment, early retirement, annual pay rise and other perks. However, only new recruits would be stripped of these privileges. President Macron claims he won’t back down on the rail reform since the state-owned company is in debt of 46 billion euros.

The support for the strike seems to be shrinking even among the rail workers. Only 14% of rail workers were on strike on 23 May compared with 27% in the middle of May.

On 25 May the government agreed to absorb 35 billion euros in debt from SNCF as a part of the negotiation process with trade unions.

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