The sharing economy tackles one of the biggest issues every modern city faces – inequality.

Last week I spoke on a CES panel “Powering the Shared Economy to Improve the Lives of City Dwellers”. My co-panellists were Zipcar, Lyft and Grab, so our discussion naturally focused on the sharing economy in transport. Our full session was recorded here.

As the only Government representative on the panel, the inevitable question to me was – how does the sharing economy impact a city? How does it fit into our plans? How does it change the way we operate? I’ll touch on the first question for now.

I believe the impact of the sharing economy goes beyond improving transport.

It has the potential to address one of the biggest issues every modern city faces – inequality.

Companies working on ride-sharing, car-sharing and autonomous vehicle fleets have the potential to make a much more fundamental impact on society than some might think.  

1. One of a city dweller’s most acute experiences of inequality is the daily commute.

Very few of us have the rising Gini coefficient at the top of our minds, but we feel its impact when we go about our daily lives. For example, in Singapore, the daily commute is a constant reminder of luxuries we may never afford. Just five years ago, there were three ways to get around the city:

  • I buy a car. It costs $100-$150k to buy a car[1], but I get the ultimate customisation in my commute. I can leave my house whenever I want, I don’t have to wait, I sit in air-conditioned comfort. I get to my destination in half the time of the equivalent journey on public transport.
  • I take public transport, which is cheap but the experience is quite the opposite of customisation. If I’m lucky, I get to the bus stop just as my bus is pulling in. If not, I wait 10 minutes, which has a knock-on effect on catching my next bus or train. I squeeze with strangers and hardly have room to move. I walk from my bus stop to work and am drenched in sweat from the 98% humidity.
  • I take a taxi, but only if I’m desperate and/or feeling rich, and it’s not always easy to catch one. At some point, taxis were waiting outside the Central Business District during peak hours so they could make an extra buck from being called, rather than hailed.

Five years ago, the trade-off between cost and comfort in the transport experience was extremely stark. A city dweller experiences inequality when he knows he will never be able to afford the comfort of a $100-$150k car, and feels like he doesn’t have a good alternative.

2.  By providing good travel experiences without the cost of car ownership, the sharing economy reduces the experience of inequality in the daily commute. 

The sharing economy has always played a central role in moving people around the city – in the form of public transport. Too bad public transport in most places gives the sharing economy a bad name.

Fortunately, technology and business innovations have given the sharing economy a much needed boost. For example, technology has enabled people to find a ride in real-time, with the click of an iPhone button. Business innovations such as Uberpool have brought down the cost of rides – in many places, below the traditional taxi fare.[1]

As a commuter, I now have a wide range of options sandwiched between owning a car and taking public transport. On the spectrum closest to car ownership, I can get an Uber or short-term rental car (e.g. Zipcar) on demand. For a slight decrease in cost, I can share my ride with others in a LyftLine/Uberpool. If I want to trade off some flexibility for an even cheaper fare, I can submit a bid on crowd-sourced bus services like Beeline or SWAT. Even public transport has improved significantly with LTA providing real-time information on bus arrival times and crowdedness.

Importantly, this expansion of good options means that commuters don’t need to make such a stark choice between cost and comfort when deciding whether or not to buy a car. This reduces the experience of inequality in the daily commute.

3. The best has yet to come – with the promise of autonomous vehicles, participating in the sharing economy will not just be a concession, but a superior option to car ownership.

Some people are already beginning to see shared transport as a superior option to owning a personal car because of the flexibility it brings. I can choose the option which fits my lifestyle – sometimes public transport works just fine, but if I’m in a hurry or on a date, I may pay more for a more comfortable experience. Importantly, I never have to worry about where to park.

In contrast, car owners can feel compelled to use their cars even if there are better options. Behavioural economists refer to car owners in Singapore as having a “sunk cost mentality”. Put simply, once you pay a bomb to own the car, nothing – not road taxes, expensive parking, the prospect of circling the block for an hour to find an empty lot, or for some, being caught drunk-driving – will stop you from using your car, because in your mind you’ve already sunk such a huge investment and you should use it as much as you can. It can be a psychological trap.

I believe that when autonomous vehicles are ready to be deployed in fleets (imagine Uber without drivers), shared transport will become even more attractive compared to car ownership. Commuting in the shared economy can become an experience, not just a necessary evil. When cars do not need to be driven by humans, new design possibilities open up. A steering wheel and front-facing seats are no longer necessary, and a car can be configured like a meeting room, for example. A car ride can be a place to meditate, focus on work or even have wine with your friends on the way to a party.

When many different designs of vehicles are deployed in a fleet, you will be able to summon precisely the vehicle (and accompanying service) you want. In the morning you could use a minivan to ferry your family to school and work, in the evening you could summon a sleek, designer vehicle to bring you to your company’s dinner function. On the weekend, a jeep could take your family around the island for some R&R.

Today, owning a private car is the standard for luxury transportation. People make a large financial outlay upfront in exchange for on-demand, customised transportation. With fleets of autonomous vehicles deployed round-the-clock, providing the ultimate customisation in travel experience, more efficiently and without the pains of parking, this paradigm will be overturned. Shared transport will be the more affordable and customised and comfortable experience. Fewer and fewer people will aspire to own a car.

4. A transportation system dominated by the sharing economy frees up precious city space for community, housing, and commercial activities

So far, I’ve talked about how technological developments may make many of us prefer shared transport over car ownership, and how that could help mitigate our experience of inequality in the city.

If more people choose shared transport instead of car ownership, this will also enable us to use our land more equitably and progressively: think about how roads and parking spaces are disproportionately used by those who have the resources to own cars. If we can reduce the number of cars on the road, this land can be used for purposes that benefit a more diverse population such as homes, community facilities and commerce.

In cities like Singapore, where land is a constrained resource, it is even more important to make sure we use it to benefit everyone, not just those who can afford it.

5. The vision of a more equal transportation experience and society can only be realised if Governments and businesses work together. Stay tuned for more.

I’m deliberately painting an ideal picture here.

Many things can detract from this vision of a less unequal transportation experience. For example, if the business models for autonomous vehicles target only the rich, or if we fail to make multi-modal transportation seamless for commuters in the shared economy (commuters really dislike the process of transferring from a bus to a train, and vice versa).

Furthermore, I’ve mainly spoke about issues pertaining to the “middle class” Some groups have not been addressed, such as the elderly and disabled. How can we ensure that the system benefits those with limited mobility?

In my next series of posts, I will explore these issues in greater detail, and talk about how partnerships between Governments and businesses can ensure that the forces of talent and technology powering the shared economy will be used towards maximum societal and business benefit. Stay tuned!

[1] Though the extent to which fare decreases are structural versus artificially depressed by Venture Capital investment is yet to be seen, a topic I discuss at https://techandpublicgood.com/2017/02/07/the-dark-side-of-the-shared-economy-in-transport-and-three-solutions/

[1] For an explanation on why cars in Singapore are so expensive, see this link. At a macro level, it’s about restricting the supply of cars to manage traffic and road space. http://dollarsandsense.sg/no-nonsense-explanation-on-why-cars-in-singapore-are-so-expensive/

[2] If the “sharing economy” is defined as a having access to an asset that you do not own. I find this to be the most compelling definition.

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2 thoughts on “The sharing economy tackles one of the biggest issues every modern city faces – inequality.

  1. Pingback: Three ways to build a transportation system that serves everyone, including the most vulnerable – Technology and Public Good

  2. Pingback: Tackling AI-driven job displacement: A Primer – Technology and Public Good

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