At heart, these services use the Internet to scale up the sort of thing young people have done for ages. Going home for the weekend? Post a note on a dorm bulletin board offering to share gas and you’d likely get a ride. Coming into town for a big concert? With a few phone calls you could easily find a friend of a friend of a friend who would let you crash on his couch in return for a couple of six packs.
This is why Uber, Lyft and AirBnB strike such a chord with millennials. These three companies have the most mindshare, but there are many others on the rise: DogVacay (pet-sitting),RelayRides and GetAround (peer-to-peer car renting) and TaskRabbit (household chores and office help). They align perfectly with twenty-something economics, ever moreso today when your first “job” might be little more than an unpaid internship. Meanwhile, the platforms offer individuals a means of income in a changing job environment where conventional long-term employment opportunities are decreasing in favor automation and contract workers.
That’s why, in the end, these services will win out, despite any short-term setbacks they encounter along the way from unimaginative local lawmakers with little else to do. They bring considerable ground-level muscle to a local economy. In the case of apartment- and ride-sharing, the easier it is to get buyers and sellers to and around your town, the more money they will spend in your town.
In 2014, I attended city council hearings on ride-sharing in Houston and San Antonio. Although each had different outcomes, an air of inevitability was evident in both meetings, as if city council members tacitly understood that, no matter what they decided that day, the sharing economy is here to stay. The Houston City Council bowed to reality, and gave Uber and Lyft considerable room to operate. San Antonio…not so much. There, insurance requirements for Uber and Lyft drivers, which exceed those for regular cab drivers, seem designed to make it too costly for ride-sharing services to take root. However, the regulation will be revisited in six months.
The most incisive comment during the San Antonio public hearing came from Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who said that everything he heard from Uber and Lyft supporters was about expanding the market and improving service for consumers, while all he heard from cab company representatives were attacks on ride-sharing companies.
From where I was sitting, this observation largely was true. One of the few cab drivers who did not attack Uber and Lyft didn’t help the case for cab companies either. She said she made an effort to keep her cab clean and would lower her fare to match Uber’s if a rider could show her the quote. So while she may have intended to argue against ride-sharing, she implicitly admitted that ride-sharing competition was making her a better service provider.
But the competitive aspect is not all there is. No matter what their political make-up, city councils know that opposition to Uber, AirBnB and the larger sharing economy runs counter to the very policies they need to create functional urban environments into the future.
Technology is part of it. But consider also the considerable taxpayer dollars devoted to policies designed to deliver residential density and re-establish neighborhoods—bike-sharing, green space and zoning initiative that favor small and diverse shops and restaurants, rather than national chains. The value of these programs is diminished when cities simultaneously stick to outmoded mechanisms from past eras, like micromanaging the local livery market.
Attempting to nurture a population base of young professionals while deliberately preventing these same young professionals from connecting for mutual economic benefit…well, counterproductive is a nice word for it.