Guest Op-Ed: Sharing is Hard

March 28, 2019

As most parents can attest, teaching your children to share is one of the more difficult concepts to instill: it’s no wonder that adults have just as hard a time. Even if you’re aware on a philosophical level that sharing is the right thing to do, maybe the socially and environmentally responsible thing to do, your choice might still be to do it alone.  It’s always easier to trust in our own abilities. Putting trust into someone else for all or part of the same activity leaves so much more is unknown less personally controlled, running up against natural desires for safety and security. Furthermore, some people see status on owning material possessions and enjoy the freedom of being able to act with only their own interests in mind. And if that’s the case, how can we ever get to a place where sharing is the norm?

The practice of ridehailing and carpooling, be it a taxi, Uber, or slugging, includes sharing a vehicle that is not your own, and sometimes sharing that asset and space with multiple other people who also do not own that vehicle. In order to maximize road and vehicle capacity, the transportation industry must identify ways to mitigate our natural aversion to sharing to maximize efficiency.

The growth of ride hailing has continued steadily over the past few years, with the service increasing in popularity across nearly all demographic groups. But although ride hailing has become more popular among people of all ages, incomes and education levels, the practice of sharing your ride with a complete stranger remains a barrier for most potential users.

Earlier in my career, I worked for a vanpool company, advocating for what is essentially a larger, more organized versions of carpools. I could give you the statistics showing significant monthly cost savings by using a vanpool instead of driving yourself, but inevitably, the response would be, “what if I have an emergency.” And even though I had a contingency response for every single objection, still the majority of people would never be swayed. The roughly 10% of people at any given employer that would give it a try would still be fraught with indecision and fear. We held new group kickoff meetings to determine the consensus around the ability to reserve a specific seat. Are “smelly” foods allowed? How many minutes would the group wait for you before continuing on? I would receive emergency phone calls at 4 a.m. from commuters tattling on their counterparts: “we decided no music, only talk radio, but the driver keeps putting on country!” And while it’s funny to look back on now, these challenges highlighted the human factors that must be solved in order for behaviors to shift toward shared commutes.

The personal experience I gained in speaking directly to commuters highlighted what research cannot. Although you can ask people for their preferences and give them options, they will often respond with what they believe they would do, rather than what they would actually do. Is there some strategy that would allow people to feel more comfortable with shared commutes? One of the reasons why vanpools and carpools work from a shared perspective is because, even if the fellow commuters are strangers, there is some level of trust that comes from working at the same employer. You have similar people in common; you went through a hiring process; you know the person is employed and therefore can most likely pay their fair share. This inherent trust is what creates heightened willingness to share the commute.

Solutions for incentivizing sharing rides could be legislated with policies that incentivize specific behavior, or they could be a grassroots effort that bubbles up from a sudden willingness to share vehicle occupancy. Ride hail companies with pool options demonstrate little user adoption on that front. The numbers are particularly concerning amongst older riders or those who live in less urban areas. With that being the case, what is the best way to encourage social acceptance? Though this debate may seem slightly ahead of its time, I believe we’re actually pretty late to the party. We might be able to start working towards solutions if we can answer the question, “What makes Americans lack the trust in shared space?”

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