Alana Brasier recently wrote two excellent posts about bike sharing and car sharing, which (with some gentle prodding by a colleague) got me thinking a bit about some of the broader economic implications of what has become known as “the sharing economy.” This convergence of mobile apps, ubiquitous smart phones and the blurring boundaries between people’s private and public lives has produced an increasing number of things that you can share with others, depending on your particular preference and need. Lyft Map

I don’t think I could sum up the issues and implications of all this sharing much better than this post by Aaron Renn. He does a great job of tracking the emergence of the sharing economy all the way back to the emergence of less-structured corporate office environments in the 1990s. I witnessed this indirectly through my wife, who works for a large global consulting firm. When she wasn’t working at a client site, her workplace options were to either show up at the office in downtown Chicago to pick up her plastic tub of personal effects and grab a non-assigned desk for the day, or work from home. (I think you can guess which option she usually chose.) Now she works from home full time at an internal position with the company, as does every single one of her immediate co-workers.

A spokesman for her company was quoted saying that it has reduced its real estate portfolio from 3 million square feet to 900,000 square feet even as its headcount increased, which saves it considerable money on overhead. Because the trend of working remotely conflicts with the trend of increasing workplace collaboration (remember the Yahoo work-from-home change?), there are differing opinions out there about the future of office space. Not every company has the business model, means and desire to be as aggressive as my wife’s employer, but an increasing number of companies are taking the opportunity that technological and societal shifts are giving them to be more efficient in how they use space.

Sharing in Transportation

Sharing can help us use our transportation facilities more efficiently too, as Renn astutely points out in his post. (See the part where he talks about “deadweight loss,” which is a classic economics term.) We all know that single-occupancy vehicles are inherently inefficient because there are empty seats going unused in most cars on the road. David Levinson delves even deeper into the waste built into our current transportation system in a recent post. So it turns out that a car-dominated transportation system is a pretty inefficient use of space, which makes sense to anyone who has seen the famous visualization of cars versus transit on a single city block. Space means land, which must be purchased, paved, and otherwise constructed upon, not to mention maintained over the long term. From an economic perspective, the more people we can transport using the same amount of space (or less), the more productive the system will be.

So if we want to improve the productivity of our transportation system, we can start by making non-automobile modes more available, convenient, and comfortable if necessary (so people will actually use them). And we can allow people to make more productive use of those empty seats next to them and behind them in their cars. There’s a lot more we can do, which Levinson outlines in his post, from road diets to congestion pricing to driverless cars. It will probably take an assortment of strategies working simultaneously to make our transportation system more productive, but we need to make the effort. For a part of our physical world and economy that is both so important to daily life and so expensive to build and maintain, we are not doing a very good job in getting the most bang for our buck out of it. But it looks like there are a lot of ideas out there on how to improve that.

–Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog