The sharing economy makes it relatively easy to get around without owning a car, via cycling, as well as car-sharing and ride-sharing initiatives.
By Katie Kapro
In Boise, Idaho, it all began with a fleet of yellow bikes in the 1990s. A mystery organization with big dreams refurbished a handful of used bicycles, painted them yellow, and left them scattered around downtown for anyone to use. It was the closest we ever got to two-wheeled socialism. Sadly, within a year the bikes were no more: stolen, stripped, or vandalized. People went back to driving their cars downtown.
That was the ‘90s though. The dot-com bubble still hadn’t burst. GMOs were the cool new thing. Aerosol hairspray was popular. People obviously didn’t understand just how amazing a bike-share project could be. They didn’t need to understand.
Today is different. The economy is different. We understand the need for environmental awareness, action, and lifestyle choices. Every day we experience the value of supporting local business, buying local food, and participating in community-building events. We’ve found that by taking the time to invest in our communities, we walk away from what would otherwise be “a transaction” with something much richer: a personal experience.
Enter the sharing economy. The sharing economy is a trend boosted by online companies like Uber, Airbnb, Craigslist, and eBay. It’s the idea that there needn’t be a prominent middleman in every transaction. Skip the corporation and go straight for human-to-human interaction.
One of my favorite aspects of the sharing economy is that alternative transportation is back with a vengeance. For whatever reason, people are getting more and more comfortable with the idea of leaving their cars at home, or just not buying cars in the first place.
I’m proud to say that Boise has a new bike-share project that’s been running smoothly for over two years. The bikes are blue and green now, not yellow, and are housed in pay-to-ride bike rack stations throughout the city. This time, as extra incentive to abide by the rules of sharing, a charge of $1,200 will appear on your credit card if the bicycle is not returned.
The shift to a sharing economy affects more than just cyclists. It’s become commonplace to see a variety of car share programs in regular use in urban areas. For instance, I have friends in a housing co-op in Boston where eight to ten people chip in and share one car. They split insurance, payments, and gas. That takes their carbon footprint from really quite sizeable to a reasonable amount for their household.
Zipcars – cars rented by the hour – can also be found in most neighborhoods in big cities where car ownership is only practical when you have to make a big grocery run. They’re a convenient way to justify not owning a vehicle, because if you ever need one it’s just a few blocks away.
Last but not least, most cities in the US and Canada are familiar with Uber. It started its life as a rideshare company, but it’s quite clearly developed into a taxi service. Since Uber is essentially a taxi company staffed by everyday drivers – which carries along with it a whole slew of legal complications – even small town lawyers have had to become well-versed in the uberfication of the world. Just another way the sharing economy changes our local communities. One of the real benefits of car sharing programs like these is that they make use of the cars already out there instead of manufacturing more. Fewer cars on the road and fewer newly manufactured vehicles cuts emissions and industrial pollution.
The next logical step from car sharing is ridesharing. Ridesharing, aka carpooling, hasn’t really caught on in North America, but Europe is seeing a huge rise in the practice. According to Fortune Magazine, a simple app does all the work by “connecting drivers headed from, say, Munich to Berlin, with riders who chip in for gas.” It’s an elegant solution to the financial and environmental issues posed by long-distance road trips.
Why haven’t North Americans embraced the trend?
Perhaps it’s the geographical distance, safety concerns, or a combination of the two. Either way, sharing a ride from Vancouver to Miami would be a whole lot better for the planet than jumping into a jet. We don’t have to rely on an app to make the change here in North America; next time you’re planning a road trip, put out your feelers in the community and see if there’s anyone else heading in your same direction.
How has all of this sharing changed us, fundamentally? I like to think it has awoken our collective sense of adventure. Somewhere along the line, in the decades following WWII, North American culture developed this over-reliance on security. We insulated ourselves from all risk. It’s a natural step politically, sure, but the cultural implications have played out in such an unusual way. In many ways, we have become a culture of shut-ins, terrified of encountering one another on the street, and reliant on technology to cope with everyday social stresses. Instead of initiating small-talk at a market and asking someone to coffee, we let an online dating app tell us who’s a safe bet. It’s funny then that technology is proving to be the mechanism that extricates us from the bubble of our computers, homes, and cars. The best applications for technology serve to connect people.
The environmental benefits of the sharing economy are vast. Fewer drivers on the road, less pollution, less waste … the list goes on. But the nature of the beast makes it difficult to quantify just how good it is for the planet. Finding statistics that aren’t swayed in one direction or the other is no easy task, and even when those statistics exist, there’s always another set to dispute it. One thing is for sure though: Reducing waste and pollution in your local environment benefits the planet as a whole. Doing what we can to 1) reduce our own carbon emissions and 2) influencing big business to do the same are the first steps to keeping the planet healthy. Who knows, the way things are going, you might even make a new ally or two doing it.
Katie Kapro is a writer and green-for-lifer in the US Intermountain West. She doesn’t own a car and rides a pink bicycle plastered in goat stickers everywhere she goes. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.