How does actual sharing fit into the sharing economy?

shared-use-logos-bIt’s safe to say that, in 2016, the sharing economy has gone mainstream. What’s funny about this is that what most people are referring to when we talk about this segment of the economy has little to do with sharing.

I was thinking about this while I rode my hotel’s “shared bicycle” ($22 for four hours) around Chicago prior to the start of this week’s Shared Mobility Summit (of which Mobility Lab is a media sponsor).

The driving forces for the sharing economy, when it comes to transportation, should be efficiency, reliability, traffic mitigation, and the appeal of non-driving options.

But Uber and Airbnb, arguably the two biggest names in the sharing economy, are at their core peer-to-peer businesses. Sure, Uber helps people who don’t live near transit have a better option than taking their own vehicles, and Airbnb can be more convenient and less expensive than staying in a hotel. But in the end, drivers and hosts are providing a service that costs their customers money.

This is not the essence of sharing as most people think of it. Uber and Airbnb are technologies that, with the spread of internet access, have allowed average, non-corporate people to make money from their resources. But there really isn’t any bartering going on, and it’s not “sharing our stuff” in the sense of enjoying portions of our things with each other.

Most importantly, we don’t want to miss the unprecedented opportunity for people to use limited resources more efficiently. It’s not UberX, but UberPool, that should be the focus – actual shared rides. It’s not car companies trying to put more vehicles on the road. It’s Turo, formerly Relay Rides, that lets people rent out their already existing and sitting-most-of-the-time vehicles. It’s Sameride, which is focusing on building critical mass for its carpooling route.

There’s a long way to go before the average household understands all of this. In a recent study by the Insurance Research Council, 71 percent of American adults “report little familiarity” with the sharing economy, with a plurality of that group, 46 percent, saying they are “not at all familiar.”

Another major study, conducted by Pew, found that only 15 percent of Americans have used a ride-hailing app, and only 3 percent say they use them on a daily or weekly basis.

These are very intriguing, and somewhat stunning numbers to a city boy like myself, where the services are more commonly used and density creates more options. Doesn’t everyone like a deal? For instance, I stayed in an altogether-pleasant Airbnb in Pittsburgh this month for $90 during the University of Pittsburgh homecoming, when no hotel in the city core could be found for less than $350. There appears to be a lot of people overpaying to stay in hotels simply because “that’s what we’ve always done.”

It makes me wonder how old-school models like hotels, taxis, and transit are going to survive once a lot more people start realizing they have all these other options. Do they even need to survive? Have we simply been doing it all wrong all these years?

Perhaps part of the problem in reaching people might actually be technology. There are so many apps that do so many different things; maybe it’s no wonder that people default to the car over transit or the hotel over someone’s guest room. A new study from Xerox found that half of all respondents believe they will have one app for all their transportation needs by 2020. This sounds like wish fulfillment by people who want all these little players to go away or merge or something.

Maybe one app for carpooling, one app for car-sharing, and one app for ride-hailing is the model that would get more people into the sharing economy.

Finally, where does government fit into all of this? Promoting and incentivizing sharing that has a larger societal benefit seems like a good start. Since the market is so competitive, most start-ups aren’t sharing their data, another thing regulation could encourage. More open data could help planners, programmers, and others make the broader transportation network run more reliably.

Perhaps federal and state governments could usher in some incentives to get these services to open up and cooperate as part of a larger transportation system. If services are going to channel the nature of sharing, it should be to play a role in improving accessibility and equity too.

If most of the businesses and services being defaulted into the “sharing economy” category truly don’t fall into a more traditional definition of sharing, then perhaps it’s not too late to call the sector something else altogether. The Associated Press has already gotten the memo, last year instructing writers to refer to “ride-sharing” as “ride-hailing” instead.

But if these options truly begin to relieve traffic congestion, increase affordability and accessibility, and improve many of society’s other ills created by our current transportation situation, then we can truly begin to feel all warm-and-fuzzy inside the sharing economy.

Photo: A ride via Uber (Andrew Brackin, Flickr, Creative commons).

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