Wheeli Streamlines Transportation at College


MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s “Free & For Sale” Facebook group boasts a cacophony of ride requests and offers. Before and after school breaks, the group is inundated with posts by people hoping to connect with fellow commuters to travel in and out of an area where far-reaching public transport can seem scarce.

The volume of posts and disorganized nature of the group make it difficult for students to find the rides they need. A young startup, called Wheeli, hopes to streamline this ridesharing process by allowing students to request, solicit and find rides with other students through its mobile-accessible online interface. The app, which launched at Middlebury last fall, allows its users, endearingly dubbed “Wheelsters,” to connect with other students from both theirs and other universities to find rides.

Wheeli’s three co-founders, Jean-Pierre Adéchi, Steve Delor and Alexandre Ayache, brought the startup to the University of Vermont (UVM) in 2015 when it was just a website. Since then, it has expanded into both iOS and Android apps, with 38% of the UVM campus participating.

Since launching at Middlebury, the Wheeli team has signed up 100 students. The first rides from Middlebury took place in February.

CEO and co-founder Adéchi says he realized there was a place for Wheeli at Middlebury when he saw that Midd students were already carpooling with students from UVM.

“It was an indication for us that there was a need for us to invite Middlebury to join our community of students carpooling on Wheeli,” he said.

The app is also currently expanding to the schools in the Five College Consortium in Amherst, Massachusetts, as well as to colleges in Connecticut and Rhode Island. As of now, it is operating as a free platform.

According to Dylan Philbrick, a senior at the UVM Grossman School of Business who works on the company’s development and marketing team, Wheeli enhances students’ travel experiences by creating social connections, decreasing their collective carbon emissions and making travel cheaper for everyone involved.

“Wheeli is the carpooling app for college students and we try to hit three areas: social, environmental and economic,” he said. “So we’re trying to make carpooling cool again, hitchhiking cool again.”

As hitchhiking is often associated with a plethora of safety risks, Wheeli exclusively allows students with school emails ending in “.edu” to sign up for the app. Students also must verify their student status by entering a confirmation code sent to their email and creating a short profile on the website.

So we’re trying to make carpooling cool again, hitchhiking cool again.”

— Dylan Philbrick

Following registration, students can post about upcoming road trips or search for/request rides from other Wheelsters. The app also generates a seat price for each passenger based on gas costs and other expenses, like tolls, using information about the fuel efficiency of the driver’s car and the mileage of the trip. This price is just a suggestion, and the driver may choose to raise or lower it. Passengers can complete all transactions through the app.

Students looking for rides can filter through options posted on the Wheeli site and app to find the best options for them. As with driver-for-hire apps like Uber, the app also allows drivers and passengers to rate each other using a five-star system. Female-identifying students have the additional option of only riding with other women.

Adéchi came up with the idea for the app while carpooling during a trip to Europe. He enjoyed the social aspect of ridesharing most, and wanted to bring his experience back to the states.

The Wheeli team also found inspiration in the college ridesharing model of the pre-Facebook generations, when students would post flyers advertising and requesting rides on bulletin boards around campus.

“Wheeli really originates to that pushpin board, that’s really the grassroots of it,” Philbrick said.

He added that Wheeli is unique because it allows any student to participate on either the driver or passenger end of a carpool.

“When we started, there was no one really out there doing what we’re doing,” he said. “There are other ridesharing apps and driver-for-hire apps, but in this case, everyone can be a driver and everyone can be a rider if they have a license and they’re a student.”

Though rider data is private, Philbrick said the app has received positive feedback at Middlebury.

The Wheeli team sought to bring the app to UVM and Middlebury in part because of Vermonters’ proclivity for environmentalism. What’s more, Vermont’s rural setting can make it difficult for students to travel.

“For someone like me, who came from Manhattan and didn’t have a car, I went to UVM, I felt really isolated until we were able to get Wheeli as a functional and efficient transportation network for students,” said Philbrick, who helped bring Wheeli to UVM during his first year at Grossman. He added that Wheeli can help students travel around Vermont to enjoy the states’ natural attractions and ski mountains.

Currently, the Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) shuttle and commuter bus systems offer students free to inexpensive rides to Burlington, Rutland and various destinations around the county. However, Middlebury students use ACTR mainly to get around town and to the Snow Bowl in the winter.

For more long-distance trips, the Student Government Association (SGA) sponsors discounted charter buses for students traveling to Boston, New York, and other popular locations at the beginning and ends of school breaks. Tickets typically cost between $35 and $65, with prices increasing in the weeks leading up to the breaks.

Apps like Wheeli provide an alternative for those who do not want to utilize public transport or who need to travel further than these options permit. The app especially strikes a chord with Middlebury students because so many students at the college have cars — Public Safety has issued 1,080 permits to student vehicles this year alone. Wheeli, unlike car rental services like Zipcar, allows students to carpool with students who already have cars at the college, offering a cheaper and more environmentallay friendly alternative.

Casey McConville ’20 noted that she prefers ridesharing to public transport options like the buses. Before she had a car on campus, she tried Zipcar, buses and carpooling to get home to New York and to visit her boyfriend in Boston.

“I think that as a freshman, I lacked a lot of networks in which to look for rides, and I ended up taking a lot of buses,” McConville said. “The problem with the bus system here is it usually takes you to Burlington and then takes you to whatever city you need to go to, which adds an extra two hours onto your trip because you’re going north instead of south.”

She added that she would have used Wheeli last year to find rides. Now that she has a car on campus, she would use Wheeli to connect with other people making the same trips.

Wheeli is currently live at Middlebury. To make an account, visit wheeli.us.