Sharing is Caring, Reflections on the New Economy and Planning

In a recent article on the American Planning Association’s Sustainability blog, Share and Share Alike? David Morley, AICP, APA Senior Research Associate describes the attitude shift in professional planning circles from positive to neutral-to negative when it comes to the sharing economy. He cites several articles on the topic, but one segment of the article in particular, caught my attention: a reference to research in Plan Canada: this issue features an article (“Planning for Housing in a Time of Growing Employment Precarity”) correlates the presence of amenity-rich urban environments attracting technology firms and their highly skilled workforce with the sharing economy. The article notes that the result of this economic restructuring is that the cost of living in these environments is pushed upward due to the availability of urban amenities and is fueled by the sharing economy, which creates a large pool of involuntary part-time workers who can’t afford to live in these areas.

I used Lyft in San Francisco, and during one trip, I learned my driver was an urban planner. She worked full time for a large private firm. This planner was not from a pool of involuntary workers, but was part of the professional, full-time pool using the shared economy to supplement her income.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a noted parking expert with Nelson/Nygard in San Francisco spoke recently in Portland. When discussing the balance between parking regulations and requirements, he noted the ability of shared car services either as carsharing or transportation network service to help meet one's occasional usage. He noted that access to a single car-share vehicle can remove between seven and twenty-five vehicles from the roadway.

To me, these examples note that the sharing economy can reflect a more thoughtful use of resources (from land area for automobiles to flexible housing) and can contribute money back into the local economy, either as savings or income.

Going back to the Plan Canada article, David asks what the bigger picture is for planners and if the sharing economy challenges underlying assumptions about how we should be planning our cities? David says yes, and notes that new solutions need to be found to facilitate affordable housing (keeping amenity-rich cities affordable).

I’ll say yes too, and add that just because the questions get more complicated, doesn’t mean that planners need to stop creating livable cities or providing opportunities within the sharing economy. One does not preclude the other, but linking the shared economy and unaffordable communities creates an unsubstantiated scapegoat, with few solutions other than regulation.  To me, it illustrates that the solutions just require more complex answers and collaborations from technology and innovation outside of traditional urban planning realms. Case in point: Google’s Bicycle Vision Plan to provide bicycle paths to help its workers commute by bicycle.

The urban planning evolution of the shared economy (the “planning response”) as described in the article by David Morley reflects that the questions being asked of planners have gotten more challenging, and with that, comes the opportunity for multi-faceted solutions.