The Age of Access in a Sharing Economy

June 17, 2014

Susan Shaheen, an adjunct professor and co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC), recently led a panel discussion to explore the growing influence of the sharing economy on transportation systems and the future of this rapidly evolving field.

 
The panel included (from left to right) Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of ShareableEd Reiskin, director of transportation at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA); Shomik Raj Mehndiratta, a lead transport specialist and member of The World Bank; Michael Jones, founder of Alta Bicycle Share; and, Rick Hutchinson, CEO of City CarShare.
 
Shaheen defined the sharing economy as a developing phenomenon around renting and borrowing goods and services rather than owning them. Sharing can take place among peers, such as community drivers, peer-to-peer carsharing or bikesharing, or through businesses such as a carsharing operator. Further advances in technology and a developing societal paradigm in which access is more important than ownership means shared-use mobility services could continue to grow substantially in use and impact in the coming years. 
 
Gorenflo, a co-founder of the news organization Shareable, described the evolution of the sharing economy. He noted that the sharing economy and shared-use mobility should be considered a “transition”--not a “trend”--because of the significant structural drivers, such as strengthened consumer sovereignty, pushing the change as we move from a top-down economy to a flattened, peer-to-peer economy.
 
Each member of the panel then addressed three questions posed by Shaheen, beginning with, “What type of platform is needed to support this rapid pace of innovation moving forward?”
 
Reiskin of SFTMA said a policy framework that would account for safety, equity, and accessibility goals when assessing the value and legality of innovative mobility services is needed.
 
In response to a second question about the opportunities and obstacles to forming public-private partnerships (PPPs), Hutchinson of City CarShare said that because public rights-of-way are used by many of the shared-use mobility providers, these providers should be required to meet some goals for the good of the general public, such as emissions reductions or providing pods in equitable locations.
 
The third question examined the role of research in supporting shared-use vehicle services. Jones of Alta Bicycle Share noted the practical roles of research in bikesharing; he cited the need to better understand the dynamic and flow of bikesharing fleets throughout the day to address the rebalancing issue. The World Bank’s Mehndiratta pointed out that open data and research are central to the development of shared-use mobility.
 
In his concluding remarks, Mehndiratta re-iterated that research is necessary to precisely define the public interest so that policy and shared-use vehicle services align with those interests. He also said that what makes cities the cradle of civilization is the tolerance of difference, which was echoed by the other panelists.
 
Reiskin concluded the panel with a poignant note: At the crux of innovative mobility options is enhancing the quality of life for everyone within a city. Since we are talking about the public good and commons, we need to be very careful in assessing and managing these systems as they develop, he said.
 
--Matt Christensen, Susan Shaheen, and Mike Galczynski