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Tom Keane

How to grow the ‘sharing economy’

Anson Liaw for the Boston Globe

Thanks largely to clever technologies, Boston’s transportation system is evolving, moving away from the familiar model of private cars and public transit to something cheaper, greener, more convenient, and more consumer friendly. It’s an exciting future the city needs to embrace; it also needs to push things along.

The new transportation model is all about sharing, the buzzword for what some call the “sharing economy.” It includes innovations such as ride-sharing (Uber), bike-sharing (Hubway), and car-sharing (Zipcar). All three rely on cutting-edge communications; none would have been feasible in a pre-Internet world. Smartphones allow users to find out where bikes are available, order up a ride, or reserve a car. (The same technology, by the way, is making conventional public transit more user-friendly as well, telling commuters when the next bus or train will be coming by.)

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Collectively, these three methods supplement existing ways of getting around, but — and this is the key idea behind the sharing economy — they also mean that it’s no longer necessary for residents to own their own forms of transportation. Consumers benefit considerably, avoiding the expense of a purchase, maintenance, parking, and insurance. The city benefits too. Boston built America’s first subway, putting streetcars underground, because crowded streets were too clogged to handle traffic. The city faces similar problems today. Hubway, Uber, and Zipcar offer a solution with minimal taxpayer expense.

Minimal expense, yes, but there’s still much the city can do — or not.

In the case of ride-sharing services such as Uber, what the city needs to do is nothing. As we recently saw in Cambridge, where the city clumsily proposed regulations that in effect would have killed Uber and its ilk, the old-guard taxicab industry is desperate to protect its monopoly status. Rather than get involved, politicians should just stand back and let change occur unimpeded.

When it comes to bike-sharing, though, more needs to be done. Hubway, first launched in 2011, requires minimal city funding, relying instead on user fees, grants, and corporate donations. Originally focused on downtown Boston, it now includes further-out neighborhoods as well as Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville. Ridership has grown every year; in 2013 there were almost 10,000 subscribers and 1.5 million rides. That makes for a lot of forgone car trips (and 500 tons less of CO2 emissions). Still, if you’re an urban biker, you know that sharing city streets with cars is a scary proposition. Getting from point A to point B shouldn’t require a high measure of courage, which is why the city needs dedicated bike lanes. It’s not a matter of building new pathways. Rather, as New York did along 8th and 9th Avenues, it means keeping cars and bikers apart.

Zipcar needs help too. The Cambridge startup was founded in 2000 and now is based in Boston. A unit of the Avis Budget Group, it last year had over 4 million reservations in 28 cities around the world, including London and Barcelona. But for all of its success everywhere else, it’s something of a poor stepchild in its home base. In most cities, Zipcars can be found in reserved spaces on city streets (in Baltimore, for instance, 40 percent of its locations are on-street, regional VP Jonathan Gonsky tells me). Not so in Boston, where all of its pick-up locations are off-site: in alleys or on private property.

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Why does that matter? Zipcar says car-sharing climbs dramatically with more visible, on-street locations. Boston makes available on-street space for restaurant valet services. Why, Zipcar wonders, not for car-sharing — especially since it’s willing to pay dearly to rent the spaces?

With parking tight in many neighborhoods, residents’ first reaction to that idea would likely be an unequivocal “no.” But Zipcar has persuasive data showing that every one of its cars reduces the number of privately owned vehicles by as many as 15. In other words (and somewhat counterintuitively), giving over an on-street parking spot to a car-sharing service actually makes it easier for everyone else to find a space to park. It’s an idea the city should explore.

Noise, traffic, and crowding are the city’s soft underbellies, threats to growth that need to be managed. The sharing economy, with a little help from the city, is no short-term novelty: it’s the new transportation system of the future.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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