The Sharing Economy’s Leave Behinds
An observation was recently made that if someone in a typical day went to work in a WeWork office building, took an Uber home and then had DoorDash deliver dinner, that person was relying on a collection of industries that, together, lose $13 billion annually. But it is not just this hypothetical person. Cities, developers and planners have made large assumptions based on the permanence of these types of platforms. But as WeWork ousts its CEO/Founder due to lackluster performance and Uber acknowledges that it cannot make money so long as its workers are both human and require fair labor laws, the market seems to be coming to terms with the overstated promises of these disruptors. However, even if these platforms change or, gasp, disappear in the next five years, they have produced some critical leave behinds that will continue to shape how we work, how we move and how our built environment supports it all.
WeWork has been joined by dozens of national coworking companies alongside hundreds of local iterations and thousands of proxies in coffeeshops, breweries and libraries. This massive move away from the conventional office format demonstrated that people will pay a higher per square foot rent for less space and shorter leases if the space is properly amenitized. It also stressed the importance of creating third places (both as a place to work and as a mediator between home and work life). This redux of office work allowed smaller, funkier buildings that would have been conventionally scraped for a large new Class A structure to once again not only have value but a strong desirability as creative office space.
So if WeWork and other coworking giants went away, would we all go back to the office park? Hardly. The rise of coworking has uncovered several more enduring factors at play:
We still have a glut of office buildings that need a future (not all can become housing)
Density of people in a place for a variety of reasons at a variety of times is critical (ie the stand-alone, single-use office parks and 9-5 downtowns are things of the past)
Employment can and should happen in neighborhoods and other, perhaps surprising, locations
Both Uber and its competitor Lyft are facing mounting sustainability challenges in their race to an autonomous future. While fraught with issues, these platforms (not to mention the rise of bike and scooter shares) in a very short time allow us to observe more deeply embedded trends for how we move about. It turns out that, when given the choice to shed a car or two, people will pay more per mile for the privilege of doing so and, when given the chance to use their car for more than just hauling yourself around, people will do it. And it is not just for people. These highly networked services has given a new rise to the on-demand delivery of virtually everything and are spitting out much more nuanced data about how people and goods move about. We also saw that people care about their transportation experience, are more likely to explore new corners of their city when all it entails is the push of a button, will jump at the chance to do other things with their time and, as a result, transportation reemerged as more of a service than as a burden borne by individuals. So much so, in fact, that even when we do drive ourselves, we refuse to give up the trappings of someone else doing it for us, which has led to the astronomical rise in distracted driving. Ridesharing has underscored the fact that we still have far too great reliance on the car, has further exacerbated the geometric constraints of that reliance (even if providing less parking is now better understood) and the reality that transportation of any type is hard to make pencil without subsidy (from venture capital, the public or both).
So if the transportation changes of the past ten years is set to change again, how do we make smart investments in our transportation infrastructure and development when the time horizon of these investments is measured in decades, not quarterly earnings reports? A few insights that from the past ten years of change may provide guidance:
Cities need to expand the portfolio of transportation options and how those options connect to one another
The way we design our streets need to acknowledge the full portfolio and that the details of that portfolio are subject to change
Transportation, regardless of mode, needs to be a far better experience than it has been over the past fifty years
The technology and market acceptance exists for a more direct user fee-based model, even if those models still rely on some form(s) of subsidy
Far more places need to be built around the scale of the free (walking) or near-free (biking) mobility.
It is safe to expect that change will increasingly be more constant. Planning and building within this context, then, should not rely on trends and platforms but be built upon the underlying phenomenon that give rise to these new applications. Whenever a new service takes off, ask yourself what does this tell us about ourselves, as creators, as consumers and as communities? Iterate and test around these questions to find their answers. The answers to these are much slower to change and, therefore, are much more bankable when making long-lasting planning and investment decisions.