“We believed then as we do now, that the sharing economy can democratize access to goods, services, and capital – in fact all the essentials that make for vibrant markets, commons, and neighborhoods. It’s an epoch shaping opportunity for sustainable urban development that can complement the legacy economy. Resource sharing, peer production, and the free market can empower people to self-provision locally much of what they need to thrive. Yet we’ve learned that current U.S. policies often block resource sharing and peer production. – From the report “Policies for Shareable Cities”
“Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us. Not everyone wants it to be easier.” – Richard Stallman, “Why Software Should Not Have Owners”
Not long ago there were pretty clear boundaries between the personal sphere and the commercial one, as well as more clear boundaries between public and private space. What’s more, most things, both personal and commercial, were heavily based on a model of exclusive use. Today these lines are increasingly dissolving in ways that upset current business models and lifestyles. It portends a present and a future in which property is increasingly shared, not exclusive, and where there are a mixture of public, private, personal, and commercial entities intersecting in the same spaces. The key driver of this is technology, which has reduced barriers and transaction costs in a way that enables things like car sharing that would have been impossible not long ago. However, our legal frameworks have often not kept up with this. Some people who benefit from the current models would like to keep it that way. But if we let the marketplace evolve, then institute good rules to fit this new reality, it promises to hold huge benefits to the public.
First an example that’s by now old hat. In an age before cell phones and personal computers, there was a more rigorous separation of work and personal life. People need to be physically co-located in a office. They commuted there every day, worked in a dedicated personal office or cubicle, then went home where work as a rule did not intrude. Today’s workers are checking email every waking hour (and even being interrupted during the night), while also spending much more time on personal things (online banking, fantasy football, or random web surfing) while in the office. The internet has enabled distributed work environments, in which teams collaborate from offices, airports, and homes around the world. Companies increasingly have turned to “hoteling” or other shared space concepts in the office on the assumption employees no longer need dedicated space. Many people have flexible work arrangements or otherwise telecommute. In the latter case, home and office have literally merged.
This has had huge benefits across the board. Companies love it because they can access cheap labor pools overseas, effectively recruit people with a need for workplace flexibility, and reduce their office space needs. Joel Kotkin has said the latter trend may mean America has hit “peak office.” Workers get the flexibility they like, can save on commuting costs, access geographically remote clients, etc. The environment benefits from reduced commuting. The ultimate green commute is one you don’t have to make. I would say that the balance of the benefits here has accrued to business, while workers have sometimes had arrangements they don’t like forced on them. Still, on the whole this shows great promise of being a win, win, win.
The “hoteling” concept and “just in time” delivery aren’t limited to corporate uses. Things like car share are bringing them to the household market. The average personal car is supposedly idle 90% of the time. When you factor in all the additional infrastructure costs needed to support a one person, one car model (e.g., parking), the deadweight loss from all that idle capacity is stunning. Imagine factories that sat idle 90% of the time doing nothing. If a corporate manager had this low a rate of asset utilization, he’d be in deep trouble.
When you sign up for Zipcar or another service, you avoid some of this deadweight loss. By effectively sharing a fleet of vehicles with others, a relatively small number of cars can serve a large number of people, greatly improving asset utilization rates and delivering big value to consumers, even when they are paying a business to manage the fleet for them. It’s a huge form of productivity gain. This also has the effect of converting transportation from a largely fixed cost to a mostly variable one, with signficiant impacts on the decision making process for everything that involves transportation (mostly positive, I believe).
Though having a limited addressable market at present, obviously car sharing in the Zipcar style poses a threat to the entire US car industry, arguably one of the most important employers in the country and one President Obama himself personally intervened to save during the meltdown. Clearly the highest levels of politics in America will defend the car industry, though to date there’s been very little complaint from them about car sharing.
Things have been different when it’s transport service providers who are threatened. Public transit agencies have long been unrelentingly hostile to jitney services. Today car service booking tool Uber and ride sharing company Lyft have experienced an all out regulatory assault from entrenched interests. Lyft is a particularly interesting case. It’s a peer to peer ride sharing platform. Just as 90% of the time a private car is unused, when it is used, 80% of the available seat capacity goes vacant. Again, this is a massive deadweight loss. (The amount of theoretically wasted capacity in the world of private cars is stunning). Imagine an airline trying to make a business out of 20% load factors. It just doesn’t work, yet we as individuals run a “business” like that every time we drive our cars solo. Lyft helps fill up those empty seats, and even get some money – “donations” – in the process.
In other words, Lyft is a business that effectively turns your personal vehicle into a pseudo-livery vehicle. I’ve long argued that we should have “every car a jitney” by legalizing it and having personal auto polices cover ancillary commercial use as a matter of course. Lyft is trying to solve that problem and make it happen. Obviously the traditional “commercial” sector (e.g., taxis), which is highly regulated and subject to many taxes and fees hates this. They feel, rightly to some extent, that there’s a double standard. This is the type of conflict and legal uncertainty are spurred when the boundaries between personal and business, and between exclusive and shared use, start breaking down.
The big kahuna in provoking outrage of late has been AirBnB, an application that lets people rent out rooms in their homes as de facto hotel spaces. Again, the same principle applies. An empty bedroom is deadweight loss just like an empty office or an idle factory. It makes sense to put those spaces to work where feasible. This had been done previously in the form of house swaps and couch surfing. But the rise of commercially oriented AirBnB has raised hackles, especially in governments that have strict rules and high taxes on hotels. There have been a number of media articles of late taking note of or weighing in on the controversy. For example, in the New York Times piece, “The Airbnb Economy in New York: Lucrative but Often Illegal.”
Again, the benefits are clear in the improved utilization of space which is a pure efficiency gain. What’s more, AirBnB was even used by the government during Hurricane Sandy to find temporary free housing for those displaced by the storm. Peter Hirshberg noted that this type of distributed app might be the real killer app for smart cities, and will play an increasingly important role in urban resiliency. But it legitimately does create a set of parallel environments and rule sets, and exposes a world in which ancillary commercial activity at a residence is something that doesn’t really fit into our existing categories.
The list of situations like this are endless. Many zoning laws don’t appropriately allow home based businesses. Fund raising bake sales have been banned because it’s not legal to sell products prepared at home. In some places there have been issues with selling vegetables from home gardens.
Then there’s the disputes arising from the increasing use of public space for commercial purposes, whether that be curb side intercity bus service or food trucks. Pushcart style food vendors, often ethnic, are also often technically illegal (e.g., rogue elotes stands).
In short, traditional barriers are falling and boundaries are dissolving, especially when it comes to those key dimensions of personal-commercial, exclusive-shared, and public-private.
I don’t want to suggest all of the complaints about these are unfounded, though many of them are pure rent seeking. From the standpoint of someone running a fully commercial operation, who complies with massive amounts of costly red tape, it certainly seems unfair that others are allowed to operate what are basically businesses under a lighter tough regulatory scheme. The status quo isn’t necessarily where we need to be.
But let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Our economy is in huge need of a massive injection of dynamism and new value creation. Many observers have said we need a completely new economic model. Walter Russell Mead has called this “beyond blue”. Richard Florida styles it the “great reset”. But clearly the old ways of doing things aren’t working and we need change.
This new style “shareable” economy based on peer to peer production in a distributed, small scale form is one that promises to provide at least part of the answer. It also renders addressable a huge amount of previously trapped value. Companies reaped huge amounts of gains by eschewing vertical integration in favor of more networked relationships. That’s corporate-speak for peer to peer sourcing. Similarly, things like hoteling, just in time delivery, etc. have let to much greater and more effective asset utilization. The amount of under-utilized assets in the household sector is stunning. This is about bringing to that household sector the same types of efficiency boosting and value creating techniques previously employed only by traditional businesses.
But beyond the sheer efficiency gains, I think it’s under appreciated in developed countries how economic informality can create economic dynamism. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto noted that lack of property titles and difficulties of the formal economy perpetuated poverty because people in developing countries couldn’t access the system for credit to fuel business, etc. In the developed world we’ve got a similar problem brewing. Our economy has been largely entirely formalized to the point where we are choking in red tape that has produced an economic system that has failed too many of its residents and leading to the creation of these informal economies as a safety valve. And our societies are very ill equipped to deal with that as we’ve become excessively formalized.
We don’t need to establish property titles as we already have them, but we do need regulatory systems that enable entrepreneurship and new business models like peer to peer to thrive. What’s more, I think enabling some level of an informal sector to flourish is actually a good thing, as it’s a de facto “incubator” for new ideas that can later be developed into a more officialized system. Without a toleration of informality, these would never get off the ground. I’ve highlighted how this worked with regards to uncertain property titles on abandoned buildings in Berlin that helped launch the creative scene there. I also highlighted similar trends in Detroit. Those again were born of desperation, but we’re starting to get there in our economy more broadly.
It seems hypocritical to me for businesses to suggest that consumers be prohibited from doing exactly what business does every single day to improve productivity and generate more value. (It would hardly be the first time though. Business love globalization – for themselves. They can buy raw materials in Brazil, manufacture in China, do their IT in India, etc. But you try applying “consumer direct globalization” by purchasing your drugs from Canada or buying an out of region DVD and see how far you get. It’s a completely two tier system designed to free corporations while trapping the consumer in hyper-segregated markets).
This would seem to be one area where the left and right could agree. Free marketers should love light-touch regulation and lower taxes in the new peer to peer economy. The left should like the way it frees consumers from dependency on big business/neoliberalism, sustainability, etc.
Adjusting our rules to make this happen is an imperative. A non-profit called Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center recently issued a report called “Policies for Shareable Cities” that talk about what a lot of places have been doing to make this happen. For example, they explained how Portland updated its zoning code to allow “food distribution” an accessory use in all zones in order to facilitate the development of the Community Supported Agriculture Model. Similarly, Marcus Westbury has talked about the need to update the software of cities in order to help redevelopment, as he helped with in the Renew Newcastle project.
But beyond new rules, maybe we should just go along with no rules for a while, and let this sector develop. After all, that’s what we did with tech. The government took a hands off approach and the feds even prohibited levying taxes. This helped the United States build a massive industry off internet technology, one that has continued to thrive even with the rise of offshoring. We should do the same here to see if we can replicate that success with peer to peer shared production in the household/personal sector.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.
Tapei bike share photo by Richard Masoner.