The Dark Side of the Sharing Economy in Transport (and Three Solutions)

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photosource: cnbc

The shared economy is a net positive for society…

In my previous posts, I’ve talked about how the shared economy – expedited by technology – can have tremendous benefits for society. For example, it can mitigate the feeling the inequality by closing gaps in the transportation experience. The benefits are even greater when private companies work with Governments to reach the elderly, poor and underserved.

I’m pretty sure that the shared economy in transport has a net positive effect on the economy too, though evidence is nascent. Last March, Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger conducted the RAND-Princeton Contingent Worker Survey, which showed a substantial rise in the incidence of alternative work arrangements[1] for workers in the US, from 10.1% in 2005 to 15.8% in late 2015. Strikingly, this implies that all of the net employment growth in the US from 2005–15 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.

One reason is that the shared economy provides part-time or intermittent work for people who otherwise cannot find a suitable job. All these Uber drivers I’ve met before – the young man who lost his job and needs time to search for new employment. The father fighting a costly custody battle, who needs a flexible job so he can show up in court. The lower-income mother who needs to supplement her day job to pay for her mortgage. Uber driving is a particularly attractive part-time job – typical part-timers get paid disproportionately less than full-timers. In contrast, Alan Krueger and Jonathan Hall found that no matter how many (or few) hours Uber drivers work, their hourly earnings were the same.

…BUT the distribution of benefits matters, and here’s how cities should think about it

Even though the shared economy creates tremendous new value, the distribution of value favours some groups over others. The tensions that arise can undermine companies operating in the shared economy, as we’ve seen in several cities worldwide. Cities need to consider how they may ensure a fair distribution of the shared economy’s benefits along three dimensions:

  • Workers vs companies
  • Incumbents vs new entrants
  • Now vs 10 years’ time, especially with the advent of autonomous vehicles

Companies would be wise to work collaboratively with cities to resolve these issues early on, rather than lock horns in costly legislative battles, or get blocked from new markets.

  1. Fair Distribution of Benefits Between Drivers and Companies

The shared economy benefits both ride-sharing companies and their drivers, but arguably companies benefit a lot more. The business model of ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Grab is to provide a technology platform which enables matching of riders to drivers. These drivers are essentially self-employed contractors who log on to the platform whenever they wish. Many are able to find work and supplement their income through this platform.

However, these drivers are not employed by ride-sharing companies and hence do not receive certain benefits. In Singapore, employers are required to contribute up to 17% of their employee’s salary to a savings account for housing, retirement and healthcare. In the U.S., many receive healthcare insurance through their employers, who are often able to get better rates than individuals. In the UK, employees are protected by the minimum wage legislation. Drivers for Uber and Grab do not receive such benefits because they are not considered employees.

As companies rely more on these self-employed workers to fuel their business, risks are passed from companies to workers. As Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said “….it serves the interests of the company because they’re really pushing risk to the contract worker…who actually can’t take much risk – the risk of instability in wages and the risk of not being prepared for retirement because of a lack of social security contributions.”

Cities need to start shifting their social policies to accommodate the rising proportion of self-employed workers. At the same time, companies need to discuss reasonable ways to spread benefits and share risks with workers who are self-employed. It need not be all or nothing. There has been talk about creating a “third classification” of workers who have some benefits of employees, while retaining the independence of a contractor. This gives both the business and worker flexibility while providing some social protection.

Working with cities on some “in-between” solutions will help business avoid lengthy legal battles down the road. For example, Uber is appealing a ruling by London’s employment tribunal recently that it should treat its drivers like employees, including paying the national minimum wage. I would go so far as to say that it is the responsibility of ride-sharing companies to start engaging in these discussions, because many of their workers face an uncertain future when autonomy arrives (third point).

  1. Fair Distribution of Benefits Between Incumbents vs New Entrants

The arrival of ride-sharing companies like Uber very rapidly redistributed benefits in the transportation system, creating new winners (e.g. consumers, new drivers) and losers (e.g. taxi drivers). Yes, there were probably more winners than losers, but the losers suffered a huge impact on their livelihoods. For exampe, many taxi drivers in the U.S. invested large sums in their license – in Chicago, the median cost of a taxi medalllion in late 2013 was USD$357,000. Having the value of your medallion plummet is like losing your home!

Cities dealing with disruptive innovation need to quickly level the playing field between incumbents and new entrants, to ensure that the distribution of benefits is not overly skewed in the direction of new entrants. 

In the case of ride-sharing, issues like driver training requirements take the forefront. For example, Singapore placed 10 hours of training requirements on Uber/Grab drivers, while significantly cutting down the training hours required for taxi drivers (now, they only need to spend 16 hours on in-class training, compared to about 60 hours previously). We also cut down course fees for taxi drivers, and scrapped the daily minimum mileage – a move which helps taxi drivers minimise empty cruising just to meet their quota.

It is in the interest of disruptors to avoid a total regulatory lockdown by avoiding a zero sum mentality in these negotiations.

  1. Fair Distribution of Benefits Between Present and Future

Finally, while we reap many benefits now, there are two important long-term considerations for cities working with ride-sharing companies.

First, many ride-sharing companies are at the stage where they are flush with investment, and can afford keep their ride prices artificially low. What happens if cities “outsource” their transportation to ride- companies, which eventually raise the prices beyond what regular citizens can afford? How can cities set up their transport systems such that competition can easily arise – keeping prices in check – or that public options can bounce back quickly? A city needs to ensure that even as people reap the benefits of the shared economy today, these benefits can be sustained over time.

Second, the big elephant in the room is autonomy. Full autonomy = no more need for drivers.

Autonomy will further redistribute the benefits away from drivers towards companies, and for all we say about new jobs being created, I’m pretty sure many of these drivers won’t be the ones to do it.

Because many drivers are self-employed workers not covered by social protections, they will be in particularly difficult situations.

It will be some time before full autonomy at scale is realised, so it is not too late to start conversations on how to ensure that drivers don’t get the short end of the stick when their jobs are replaced. One immediate action companies need to take is to give drivers information. Drivers, while not employees, are stakeholders in the company’s business and should be informed about the timeframes and implications of autonomy as the field evolves. In addition, much more can be done to help them with skills and future employment, a topic I will cover soon.

Conclusion

Over a series of posts, I’ve argued that the shared economy is a net positive for society and economy. This post, I posit that we need to work together to ensure that these benefits are distributed fairly between drivers and companies, incumbents and new entrants, present and future.

This is not the ambit of cities or Governments alone; companies seeking a sustainable business model in essential public services like transportation would be wise to work closely with cities rather than to be caught in costly legislative battles, be locked out of markets, or worse still – to be exploitative in their practices.

[1] “temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract company workers, independent contractors or freelances)

 

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One thought on “The Dark Side of the Sharing Economy in Transport (and Three Solutions)

  1. Pingback: The sharing economy tackles one of the biggest issues every modern city faces – inequality. – Technology and Public Good

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