Back in 2014, the Atlantic wondered: What is a city? It is a complicated question, but Luis Bettencourt, a professor at the Sante Fe Institute, gave them a simplified answer that seems to make some sense. He compared a city to a star. “A star is a nuclear reactor that basically has an attractive force that compresses mass that leads to nuclear reactions in the centre. The larger the star, the faster these interactions at the centre happen,” he explained. “The same thing is true for cities. What you actually are magnifying is your rate of social interactions, the larger and larger the city is.”
Maybe it’s not entirely accurate, but that definition feels close enough to reality. The sociability of cities is perhaps why things like AirBnB and Uber have had such success. They’re not exclusively urban-centric, but these two leading companies — apps, to clarify — capitalize on the 21st century notion that all things are social. Cities are where they thrive best, based surely on infrastructure (that is, cities are home to most apartments and cars), but because there are simply more people, too. Anyway, we like this idea of more sociability, don’t we? And things that belong to an economy ostensibly based on sharing sound pretty good, don’t they? Wired magazine happily declared a couple of years ago that AirBnB and Lyft, another car service app, had “finally got Americans to trust each other”.
But let’s be honest. The popularity of these apps isn’t really based on the fact that they promote sociability or sharing cars or apartments. And that’s not what they’re really selling, either. What’s important for the companies that run these apps, and for users, is convenience and price. This is commonly what people mentioned as the most positive aspects of Uber’s new venture, UberHop, when it was tested in Toronto recently. One can imagine that convenience and price were likely also major factors in prompting 17,500 people to use UberPool, Uber’s carpool service, when it was tested in Toronto during the Pan Am Games last summer — enough usage that Uber decided to make it a permanent option for users starting Wednesday. And there is little doubt that users in 100 cities across North America were also pleased to learn this week that Uber is cutting rates to counteract a winter slump.
Let’s assume that Uber, AirBnB, and other apps like them continue to flourish. Let’s assume that the cost and convenience associated with using Lyft or TaskRabbit or Postmates means that more services like them pop up, and more and more people sign on, as micro-entrepreneurs or customers (or both!). For now, this is a relatively safe assumption, given that attempts to prevent, or even regulate, their growth have been nearly entirely unsuccessful. What will happen?
Taken to their logical extreme, services like Uber or Lyft or AirBnB envision a particular kind of world — not inherently anti-social, but with sociability based almost exclusively on a particular economic model. In other words, informal social interactions — the things that make a city, in a very simple sense, a city — will, under these models, become more and more informal transactions. What will this shift mean for us? What kinds of people will we become, and what is a city, then?
We can be heroes
Individuality is usually promoted as a good thing. We have conditioned ourselves to understand our existence as primarily individual; we promote ourselves — our lives, our desires, our happiness or sadness on online social platforms designed to that end. We perfect the personal essay, examining the world and society as it relates to that experience we experienced that one time. We are all on a journey!
And it feels right in many ways to transition this to the rest of life. The old models of work, for example, are under constant strain and smaller, targeted, enterprises seem to be thriving. Sometimes they are crowd-funded, sometimes not. But there is a sense that one is not just advised to become the controller of one’s destiny in an entrepreneurial sense, but that it is perhaps required.
The share economy thrives on this sense of self-fulfilment beyond the old establishment models. Uber, for instance, uses this self-motivation as a selling feature for drivers (and one some, admittedly, anecdotally profess to enjoy) — that you, the driver, are free to work when you want. The truth of the matter is not quite so simple for many drivers, especially those hoping it can provide large proportions of their income. An algorithm is in control. An algorithm designed to create profit — not for you, but for its designers.
You are thus not wholly self-motivating. For example, if you, as a driver, make less per mile because the computer has suddenly decided so, you will then have to work more, even if you maybe didn’t want to. Or perhaps your customer review star rating falls below a certain threshold embedded in the coding of the app, and you are barred from continuing as an Uber driver. All is designed for perfection and homogeneity of the network, which is in the end the only larger system of which you are truly a part.
Let’s multiply that across sectors. Where do we end up? Eventually — again, at the extreme — we are hardly a collection of sharers. We are likely quite the opposite: increasingly separated, profit-focused, human nodes looking at every corner of our urban landscape, not as shared space, but as for-profit individual experience opportunities. Water fountains and public washrooms that work via paid app? Skating rinks and ballparks accessible to subscribers only? Personalized garbage pickup? Uber ambulance? Uber fire patrol? Uber police? All catering to our private, individual needs, all staffed by micro-entrepreneurs, and all controlled by the algorithm for maximum efficiency and profit?
In the darkest of future visions, things start to really fall apart — not just physical but also social infrastructure. Because at the heart of these apps is an operating system designed to breed isolation and to consider sharing of anything, in the sense that we tend to think of it now, as entirely wasteful.
That is a somewhat exaggerated slippery slope, and it is probably only the most wild-eyed predictors who could seriously consider such a complete micro-entrepreneurial takeover scenario. And besides, imagining every service that could be Uber-ized is not really the point.
The point is what merely broad, rather than total, acceptance of these apps as a normalized way of urban life might do to us, socially, and what that shift in social interaction means for our cities.
In the middle of the last century, Jane Jacobs wrote that, “the more common outcome in cities, where people are faced with the choice of sharing much or nothing, is nothing. In city areas that lack a natural and casual public life, it is common for residents to isolate themselves from each other to a fantastic degree. As a practical result, the ordinary public jobs… for which people must take a little personal initiative, or those for which they must band together in limited common purposes, go undone. The abyss this opens up can be almost unbelievable.”
We may be not be falling into the abyss, but we hear the warning echoed recently in an essay on working in the share economy.
“Postmates couriers are told that it is strictly against the rules to shake a customer’s hand. Like all rules, this didn’t come from nowhere,” Andrew Callaway wrote. “The truth is that using sharing economy services can breed contempt for workers. One creepy Uber driver can nurture disdain for all the lowly drivers. You never even have to see the person who is cleaning your house or your clothes. Plenty of people requested that I drop off their food at the door. Customers grow to love apps that make the worker anonymous.”
And, in turn, this keeps the user anonymous and separated, too. Because, when we are all in charge of our own destinies, what does it matter if we see anyone else? What does social interaction matter if it is not profitable? What is the point of sharing? What is the point of empathy? It seems this might be troubling over the long term, even in limited capacity.
This is not to say these apps must be abolished. Not only is there no way to do so, but it would also be ridiculous, even irrational, to suggest. Regulation has struggled, however, to enact limitations, not only because legislators have a difficult time deciding just what, exactly, they can regulate, but whether they really want to be seen as picking a fight with something their voting base — read: consumers — love for those two things mentioned earlier, convenience and price. They are therefore left grasping at the wind, becoming less and less relevant to people’s lives, and to the city itself.
Are we doomed?
An interesting train of thought developed in Toronto the day UberHop began testing in December. It went something like this: If the Toronto Transit Commission can’t, or won’t, service certain areas of the city sufficiently, then why not allow Uber to fill the gap? What is the harm? The TTC didn’t help itself, probably, in the public eye when it announced that UberHop might be subject to a legal challenge, as it so closely resembles a transit system, for which the TTC has a monopoly. That is a battle the TTC and other transit authorities are welcome to fight should they please, but it seems like a waste of time and money, as it will likely go as other regulatory fights have gone — drawn-out, inconclusive, and angry.
Strangely, there was little talk of urban design or development in areas that are naturally difficult to access, or that perhaps the TTC’s lack of service might not entirely be the fault of the TTC. Is it practical, for instance, to run buses through areas with limited road space? Would adding a bus route exaggerate congestion elsewhere, thus causing fresh areas of gridlock? Where would the bus stops be? How many? And so forth. Equally, few were asking what might occur if more Uber cars started operating in these areas every morning. Do the roads have the capacity to handle that? How many more cars can go in and out of Liberty Village every morning before creating traffic jams? In other words, is this purported solution truly a solution?
Maybe they shouldn’t be competing this way. Maybe we could just combine them.
What if instead of fighting Uber, the TTC became, in part, more like Uber? Why not adopt the technology, rather than trying to squash it? Why not offer another, subsidized, public Uber service for areas that don’t require an entire bus route, or are beyond the reach of a subway? Would it be costly? How costly? Where would the funding come from? Would the province/state kick in? Would the federal government? Could something similar be applied to AirBnB?
It is an idea — one that needs work, but it is a place to start, maybe. I don’t know? The point, ultimately, is that there is an opportunity for cities to make this technology more publicly available and accessible (especially to those of limited income, who might participate in the ‘share economy’ as service providers, but for whom its benefits are out of reach) — to create a city that can provide convenience at reduced cost, but where not everyone has to go it alone, where housing costs are not artificially inflated thanks to newfound rental income potential in each unit or home on a street, and where physical infrastructure remains sustainable, funded, and up-to-date, rather than decaying under a fleet of private cars.
In fact, such a shift may have already started. In Tampa Bay, a local regional transit authority is looking for “new ways to reach people who don’t live near a bus stop,” as “part of a pilot program called First mile/Last mile”, referring to the distance one usually has to walk to get to transit that can often make it inaccessible. The idea is to partner with Lyft and Uber (or others). “Someone could hold up their [transit] pass and get validated by the vender or they can buy a flat fare. Three dollars is our highest flat fare,” the transit CEO said. “It gives us the opportunity to get the bus off the street when it doesn’t make financial sense, but preserve that service that we are paying for.”
Interestingly, Uber has now partnered with TransLoc, an app designed to do exactly the same thing as the one in Tampa Bay. With TransLoc, the idea is to take an Uber to your local bus stop. This is an interesting step — perhaps a very good one. Of course, one wonders how often the passenger will simply opt to stay in the Uber car, but maybe this will work. Maybe this is another way to get the best of both worlds? I’m not sure.
In any case, it may be possible that the solution for issues that plague cities all over the world is not necessarily more AirBnB or more Uber, which please us as consumers, but actually more city, which must please us as citizens. Public ownership means, to a large extent, shared ownership. It means we all have a vested interest in mutual success, rather than just our own. It might even mean we have to speak to one another from time to time. It probably also means we end up empathizing and cooperating.
In the end, we sort of already have a shared economy, don’t we? Isn’t that what a city is? It could use an update to its model, but we would be wrong to think it obsolete.