One of the big themes of recent years has been the emergence of the so-called “sharing” economy. Unless we were raised by hardcore Ayn Rand acolytes, chances are that as children we were taught that sharing is good, and I certainly subscribe to that philosophy. However, the kind of sharing I learned was about splitting cookies or letting other kids play with my toys. It wasn’t about business, it was for free in an altruistic manner. What we increasingly experience today is a freelance gig economy that has little to do with that kind of sharing, and has everything to do with commerce.
The Capitalism of Sharing
Why is this relevant? Many of the shared economy startups claim to be enablers of sharing when in fact they are independent business enablers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we need to recognize these companies and their products for what they are and treat them accordingly from a policy standpoint.
Instagram is, or at least was before it was taken over by “paid influencers,” a place for users to share photos with friends. Uber and Lyft are platforms that enable freelance taxi drivers to give rides to strangers for pay. AirBnB is a platform to let people rent rooms, apartments, or houses to strangers for pay. Turo is a platform that lets individuals try to become Hertz by making their cars available to rent.
Dictionary definitions of sharing don’t rule out commerce since we buy fractions of companies and other products and call them shares. But the messaging from these companies always seems to focus on sharing in the altruistic context. This framing of the message is often used as part of the argument for circumventing regulations that govern the traditional form of the industries these new businesses are trying to compete with.
Safety in Sharing?
While there are undoubtedly plenty of rules in the taxi, hospitality, and rental businesses that are outdated and in many cases simply protectionist for incumbents, there are others that provide a public good. Background checks for taxi and livery drivers aren’t a terrible idea when it comes to public safety. Ensuring that homes being rented out to travelers meet building safety codes is ultimately a good thing. Managing where people pick up rental cars or hail rides at airports or in cities is crucial to safe and efficient operation for everyone. Yet some upstarts seem to think they get a free ride from regulations by playing the sharing card.
In late January 2018, Turo was in a dispute with the City of San Francisco about permitting at the San Francisco International Airport. The rules are meant to help pay for upkeep of the airport and manage traffic congestion. Turo claims it is not a rental company on the basis of it not owning or renting the physical assets, similar to the arguments made by Uber, Airbnb, and others. While the operational details differ from incumbent to incumbent, the end result to the customer is effectively the same as with those established players. They make reservations and payments using the startups portal, pick up their rental, and drive.
Compliance with reasonable business rules will be increasingly important as we transition to automated mobility services. Navigant Research’s report, Market Data: Automated Driving Vehicles, anticipates nearly 5 million such vehicles being deployed by 2025. If cities cannot manage where they go, congestion is likely to get worse rather than improve. We need to find a cooperative balance between overregulation and being completely laissez faire if we are to solve our transportation problems.