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Sharing – Not Ownership?

Neal Peirce / Oct 19 2012

For Release Sunday, October 21, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceSAN FRANCISCO – Each year the world’s automobile manufacturers spend a stunning half trillion dollars advertising the vehicles they’re pushing. We’ve all seen the ads – new model autos floating singly over magically traffic-free landscapes. The subliminal messages are clear: possession, power.

But if that’s been our pattern for three quarters of a century, is it necessarily prologue for a crowded, 21st-century with planet Earth, which will accommodate a billion more middle-class consumers?

Driven by today’s youth, a radically different value set and preference is emerging. It edged its way onto the agenda of an ambitious, yearly “Meeting of the Minds” conference organized by Gordon Feller, intellectual magnet and Cisco official, held here last week.

The notion’s this: Today’s young adults in their 20s and 30s, nurtured on the Internet’s vast cloud of choices, are incubating a value set of sharing rather than ownership. They’re networked and connected rather than focusing on individual, isolated belongings. They value choices and differing lifestyles – a clear break with the 20th-century model of “my car, my house, my possessions are me.”

Skeptics may counter, “Get real. Possession is the oxygen of self-identity.” And their case is strong. Booming car sales in such countries as China and India look like predictors of more personal consumerism, not less.

Yet the transportation front itself offers strong, extraordinarily hopeful indicators of new directions. As cities open more and more protected bicycle lanes, bike-sharing experiments are attracting users faster than anyone might have predicted. There are now some 200 such programs in cities worldwide.

Likewise, car-sharing systems are expanding strongly and are now estimated at as many as 1 million members in North America and 22 million worldwide.

There’s also a growing trend of so-called “peer-to-peer” auto sharing – a formalized system, with appropriate security checks on members, that lets car owners rent their autos to other users for moderate, negotiated fees.

Are those new, shared transportation systems a strong factor in world cities now? No. Even Zipcar, the largest system worldwide, still operates in just 18 major metros. The new systems are just starting to make a mark in a world with 1,000 cities of a quarter million or more people.

But just watch the rising trend, car- and bike-share experts told the San Francisco meeting. Zipcars, for example, are available on 250 college campuses, introducing the next generation to new patterns of access and connectivity.

Shared cars offer big economies for what may be resource-strained times. One study shows a single car-sharing vehicle replaces 9 to 13 owned cars; another shows that with car-sharing, a typical household could save $9,000 a year in travel costs for each vehicle it could eliminate.

The digital age is also creating new work patterns (and economic ones, too) – where, when and how work is done. The corner office may be disappearing, replaced by an open work environment that may start inside the office, then extend to nearby coffee shops and parks – with workers almost perpetually online.

Some companies have cut their desk office space and register dramatic savings. Cisco has pushed the opening of broadly distributed “smart work centers,” which save workers longer commutes. Each center offers computerized work stations and “TelePresence” conference rooms that enable contact with coworkers anywhere in the world. The company is behind 120 such centers in the Netherlands and is advising a rapidly growing group in South Korea.

A sharing economy is a powerful new model and especially appropriate to cities. That’s the argument of SPUR, San Francisco’s lead citizen planning group. It cites a host of companies – Zipcar was one leader – that help people share assets. Another, Airbnb.com, helps share rooms and apartments; Loosecubes.com shares openings for coworking; LaCocinasf.org does the same for commercial kitchen space. The list goes on and keeps expanding.

The City of San Francisco itself is encouraging sharing. Its DataSF.org website publishes real-time data sets on every area from traffic to playgrounds to public health indicators. “People then come and build their own apps based on the data,” Jay Nath, the city’s chief innovation officer, told Feller’s conference. “We’ve published 280 datasets; over 60 apps have been created.”

A fascinating opening emerges from such experiments. In a political era marked by vicious attacks on government as too big and controlling, quite the opposite appears: government as partner, facilitator, collaborator.

The sharing trend could clearly use more collaborators. Some conference participants even hoped, perhaps wistfully, that the auto companies might one day support it. (One possibility: Toyota, a “Meeting of the Minds” co-founder).

The big picture is clear. Sparked by youth and older imagineers, enabled by the Internet’s “cloud,” propelled by society’s need for efficiency and economy, the world of shared services will grow. It may lack trillions for advertising. But it suggests a more humanly satisfying future.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

7 Comments

  1. Craig Anthony Thomas
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Zipcar is the first, but not the only hourly car rental.

    The University of Houston Alumni Association introduced members and UH students to Hertz-on-Demand (now Connect-by-Hertz) more than three years ago. Because of increased demand, more models are offered.

    In short, I suspect the numbers you cite are much more impressive for sharing.

  2. Posted October 19, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I have high hopes for car sharing. Where I live now (in a first-ring, older suburb of Minneapolis), I need a car only about an hour a week, to go to the grocery store and purchase some items that are too cumbersome to get home on bike or bus. Yet I know that if I were to purchase my own car, the convenience would tempt me too much.

    Minneapolis also has a bike-sharing program, which has been surprisingly popular, given its (in my opinion) exorbitant cost.

    Still, while both car- and bike-sharing represent important changes for cities, I’m not sure it represents a true cultural shift. Electronics and other items are now more intimate and personal than they once were.

  3. Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    How soon we forget. The cooperative movement in the U.S. created work (business) and living (housing, utilities) models in the 1930s which still survive today. Seattle still has over 40 housing cooperatives. Many people joined and remain “shareholders” in these companies with some encouraging participation and decision making in actual operations. The 1960s revived sharing with communal living, job shares and even ride-shares. Many of us old enough to have participated in some sharing activities often continue the practice wherever we live or work. The web makes it possible to share the ethic and model of sharing easily, and the new businesses reflecting sharing can only mean better communities for everyone. Sharing the newspaper/magazine subscription, internet connection, garbage/recycling services, lawnmower, tools, trucks, canning supplies for fruits and veggies, garden bounty, firewood and extra furniture all happen regularly in our neighborhood. Thanks for featuring new ways to share and the new economies coming out of this trade.

  4. Ken Wood
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    “One study shows …. that with car-sharing, a typical household could save $9,000 a year in travel costs for each vehicle it could eliminate.”
    I buy new cars, keep them 10 years minimum. Service them regularly. Average annual cost well under $4,000. The “Typical household” above must be buying luxury/exotic sport cars to spend that much, or trading cars every year.

  5. Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    We sold our car two years ago and joined the car sharing programme of our city torino (italy). our savings are around 3,500 euros per year. that was foreseen. what we had not foreseen is the pleasure of riding a car always in perfect condition, the comfort of forgetting any care and choosing the appropriate vehicle for any ride (city car, SUV, van..). our sons (16 and 14) seem to attach more values more to personal items as smartphones than to cars. they love the fact that we change car at each ride.

  6. Posted October 20, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The cooperative movement clearly led to the emergence of the culture of sharing we find in the post-industrial metropolises. In the cities of Brazil the recent bike-sharing system has been introduced with great success, most notably in Rio de Janeiro. However, plans for improving the existing network and extending exclusive bike lanes are still lagging in view of effective demand by the growing number of urban cyclists. Here, the culture of relentless consumption promotes individual car ownership, on one hand –for the upper income groups, and motorcycles-for the moderate and low middle classes. Cars have acquired a special status–these are not only transport vehicles in an utilitarian definition, but become a manifestation of individual prowess and symbols of identity providing status reference in society, The drive is fueled by the heavy prime-time saturation with car ads on TV and in the printed press by the competing brands. In such context, public policy orientation and investments favored construction of highways, road networks, bridges and parking facilities. Sao Paulo has a fleet of 7 million cars, and a daily average congestion of 160 kilometers…although Rio’s fleet is smaller in size, but it will soon match not the number of vehicles on the streets, but the negative externalities of congestion, pollution and urban chaos that private cars have inflicted on cities. The good news is that there is an incipient movement of citizens that have opted not to own cars and are using metro, buses, ferry boats, bikes, or simply walking more. Hence, the alternative forms of mobility are also associated in ways to improve the quality and experience of enjoying the urban environment.

  7. Neal Peirce
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Comment of special interest received from reader Ralph McNerney in Richfield, Ohio:

    Very interesting commentary in today’s Akron Beacon Journal. I think one approach to a sharing economy is getting much closer, that is cars that are self driven. Once those are in place many urban drivers will never need to own a car or to use a taxi..

    Instead, they can call the new Rent-A-Self-Driven-Car Company. A self driven car will drive itself to your apartment or home. The car will then take you where you need to go, you can work or relax while the car drives itself. Upon reaching your destination, the car can be programmed to wait for you or be sent on to another customer. If the car is ordered to wait, it can eventually take you home or to where ever your next destination is.

    If the car was released, when you are ready to go home or to your next destination, you call for a new self driven car.

    You pay only for the time and miles you put on the car. You do not need a permanent garage or parking spot for your car. You do not need a drivers license. You do not need car insurance. You can get a self driven vehicle to particularly fit your need for each trip. Are you going by yourself? Get a single seat vehicle. Are you taking a friend or co-worker, get a vehicle with two seats. Are your taking the family, get a multi seat vehicle.

    Need to send your child to some program, you do not need to drive. The car can be preprogrammed so that the child cannot change the destination. You are no longer just a chauffer.

    Moving large materials, get a pickup truck. Load the materials at your house. Send the truck to the destination, at the destination someone can unload the truck and send it back to the Rent-A-Self-Driven-Car Company.

    This could be such a time and money saver, it would be fabulous.