Flixbus & the New Poor
Traveling by bus: a portrait of Europe’s new poor
"To me it seems that instead of targeting young students, Flixbus ended up gathering all the people that have no money. But doesn’t Flixbus then just provide those people with an easy way to cross ‘borders’? And isn't that just what a more united Europe needs?"
by Emma Bubola
On the front seat of the bus, Lina (75) is slowly peeling an orange. Her daughter has been living in France for 12 years, and is married to a French man. This was the second time Lina went to see her, taking a bus from Mestre, the Italian town where she lives. The bus is the only option she can afford, with a retirement fund of 800€ a month. She says she doesn’t mind spending almost a full day in the tiny bus-seat. “Some pain in my old back is worth it, I got to see my grandchildren,” she says, “do you want to see their pictures?”
The new European intercity buses enable people like Lina to travel very cheaply. Those who are willing to spend long hours squeezed into a small bus-seat can now go from Brussels to Amsterdam, from Berlin to Prague, for under 20 euros. The novelty of bus travel is due to the liberalization of inter-city bus routes that took place in most European countries over the past few years. France was the last one to move towards de-regulation last summer. Since then, 3.4 million people traveled by bus, according to ARAFER, the French Authority of Transports.
“The poor people who could not travel will travel more easily” : these are the words of Emmanuel Macron, French presidential hopeful and author of the law that liberalized bus transport in France.
“Those who travel by bus are the poor families, the students, the unemployed or those who have an unstable job,” said the former-Minister-turned-Presidential-candidate. Even if slightly generalized, Macron’s claim was not ill-founded. On a green bus that clocks up the miles from one European city to another, one can draft a portrait of Europe’s new poor.
On the night ride from Paris to Milan, a Turkish man stretches his legs and arms, waking up from his crouching position on the small seats. The Mexican woman sitting next to him whispers to her mum on the phone. Francesco Allegro (28) sitting in the back, calls himself “a musician and a professional pasta-maker.” Benito (60) an Italian carpenter, is sitting alone by the bus window. His face is covered by a tidy white moustache and he speaks with a very heavy regional accent. He took a 19-hour Flixbus ride to go visit his wife and daughter who live in Lyon, and he is now heading back home to Frosinone, in Southern Italy. “I used to travel by train, but it became too expensive,” he says. “I don’t mind spending a whole day in the bus, anyway, I don’t have work every day these days anyway,” Benito says, while also referring to the 2008 crisis that dealt a heavy blow to the Italian economy. He used to sell his crafts all around Italy, he says, but that is no longer the case.
The financial crisis of 2007-2008, and the subsequent austerity measures in many European countries, generated a category of people that we now call the ‘new poor’. They are the millions of medium-skilled workers, university graduates and small-business owners that face new hardships. The 'new poor' join immigrants at Italian soup kitchens, writes Marie-Louise Gumuchian in The New York Times. Well, the new poor have now also joined immigrants and students on European long-distance buses.
“The round-trip Lyon-Frosinone by train costs 140€; by bus it was half the price," Benito says. “Usually the prices are 8 to 10 times lower than the train”, says Yvan Lefranc-Morin, director of Flixbus France in an interview with Frenchweb. Flixbus, the market leader of European bus transport, connects 800 cities in 18 countries and offers rides starting from 1€.
High speed trains were introduced almost everywhere in Europe in the last 10 years, replacing the old lines in many cases. With the French TGV or the Italian Freccia you can cross the entire country in only a few hours, while seated on comfortable seats with ample leg room and a small table. But together with their speed and luxury, their price also rose, and a share of consumers was cut off from the market. “The train is only for rich people," says Naeem (45), a Pakistani construction worker, who opted for a 21-hour bus ride to go back from Paris to Brescia in Northern Italy, where he lives.
In the 2000s, Europe was the stage for the low-cost airlines revolution, and low-cost carriers now transport 250 million people annually - the industry is almost double the size of its American counterpart. Middle-class people are ready to comply with Ryanair’s relatively stringent conditions in order to travel at a lower price. Think, for example, of the limited size of your hand luggage, the advertisements on board and the fact you have to pay for your snacks on the plane.
At present, we are witnessing a new European boom: the low-cost inter-city bus industry. The tradeoff between comfort and expense is pushed to the extreme by bus travelers: people are now willing to choose an 18-hour bus ride over a 4-hour train in order to cut down their expenses.
Bus companies target the segment of the market that can no longer afford to travel by train, or that has never traveled before. “Our clients are those who have a strong preference for price over comfort”, says Paolo Fumagalli, marketing assistant for Flixbus Italy.
The bus ride from Paris to Milan takes 16 hours, from 8pm to 12am of the following day. After night falls, people try to find comfortable positions to sleep in. The lucky ones have two seats available and can lay horizontally. Others give up and rest their head on their neighbor’s shoulder in the dark promiscuity that night buses create.
At 3 a.m. the bus stops at a bus station in the outskirts of Lyon. Abdel (18) and Alex (16), two Moroccan brothers sitting very closely to each other, observe the new passengers entering the bus.
They refuse to give their real name, claiming they had gone to France for some ‘business’ they don’t want to talk about. Nobody is going to ask them to tell their real names anyway, nor what their ‘business’ is. Traveling by bus makes it possible to cross European frontiers avoiding border controls. This issue is heavily debated now that the borders of Europe are getting increasingly hermetic. According to the police, Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the Berlin attack, reached France through Holland by Flixbus, apparently armed.
“We don’t want refugees here," says the driver, in a - rather misplaced - joke directed to his colleague climbing up the bus to check the tickets. A young backpacker is the last to run inside. The door closes behind him, and the bus is back on its way to Milan.
The Italian State Railways launched the company 'Bus Italy' to step into the emerging market. “It is the future”, says the spokesman of Trenitalia in a press release, referring to bus travel. Yet, buses also carry a taste of the past. In 1942, the photographer Esther Bubley captured ‘ordinary Americans’ crossing the Midwest on board of Greyhound buses. Looking through Bubley’s ‘Bus Story’, we can easily imagine our grandparents traveling and sitting straight on the bus seats. Virginia Heffernan wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, titled ‘In praise of bus travel, the least glamorous but most lovable way to travel’, referring to the bus environment as an area of freedom and diversity that carries a certain charm.
But in the age of hipsterism, the vintage touch cannot go without the latest technologies. The main marketing strategy of Flixbus is to promote the ‘online experience’ of booking tickets. Clients hoping for a truly nostalgic experience might be disappointed. They don’t even require passengers to print-out their ticket, they only ask for a barcode that people can show on their phones. Flixbus follows the Uber and Airbnb business model: it only provides an online booking platform that coordinates passengers with the service providers (buses and drivers in this case).
The main target audience of Flixbus is in fact, as Fumagalli explained to me, Generation Z. Flixbus is crafted for young people, at ease with the internet, who are used to fast and virtual purchases.
To me it seems that instead of targeting young students, Flixbus ended up gathering all those fragments of society that have no money. But doesn’t Flixbus then just provide those people with an easy way to cross ‘borders’? And isn't that just what a more united Europe needs?