Collaborative Consumption is one of the greatest movements taking root in our world today. You might not have heard it referred to by that name, but I assure you that most of you are familiar with what I am talking about. Collaborative consumption describes the rapid explosion of in traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping reinvented through network technologies on a scale and in ways never possible before. There is a force fighting back against the rampant consumerism that is so deeply ingrained in our society today, and the best part is, it’s not just a fad, it makes sense. As a parent, one of the first things I am already teaching my daughter about is the importance of sharing. It’s one of the first things I was taught, and probably one of the first things you were taught. At some point along the line a switch flips and we stop playing with our friends’ toys and start to want our own, a tiny consumer is born. The collaborative consumption movement gives us hope that the switch that is flipped is only just that, a switch. A switch that can be flipped back when we are reminded that sharing is important, and it still gets you what you want.
Collaborative consumption takes many forms: peer-to-peer car sharing, ride sharing, toy rental, textbook rental, art rental, fashion rental, movies, neighborhood rental, co-working spaces, social currencies, crowd funding, errand and task networks, gardens, parking spots, skill sharing, peer-to-peer travel, bike sharing, and so much more. The list of start-ups and already successful companies helping to grow this movement is astounding and encouraging. I am a product of my environment like most of us and flipping my switch from consumer to collaborative consumer is no easy task. I could write for days and days on the variety of companies I would like to see bring their services to the Greater Lafayette Area, but the area I have chosen to focus on for the purpose of this article is bike-sharing.
Bike-sharing programs have taken root in many large cities within the United States, Canada, and Europe with great success. The idea is simple, a company, city, or individual can purchase racks of bikes that come with a special parking stand requiring you to insert a credit card in order to borrow a bike for your errands or ride. You take the bike for as long as you want and your card is charged on either an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis depending on the set up. Typically most cities find that these bikes are checked out for short periods of time to cross shorter distances. Most of the bikes are not really anything flashy or special; it’s about practicality after all. Think of it like a bicycle vending machine. However, one of the most interesting start-ups I discovered in my research on this topic is a group out of New York (where everything awesome comes from) called sobi (SocialBicycles). As opposed to vending machines, this company offers bikes which have locks built right onto a permanent rear pannier rack. Social Cyclists find available bikes using GPS tracking through a smartphone (possibly the only downfall for those that haven’t joined the 21st century). They enter an account code (attached to a credit card) into the keypad on the back of the bike which then unlocks it and tells a central server that the bike is in use. You mark “hubs” for these bikes anywhere you would like (a specific campus building for example), though the bikes can be taken and left anywhere within a designated system zone (perhaps all of campus for example). If a cyclist locks the bike somewhere besides the hub then they are charged a fee. The genius is that if another cyclist returns that bike to its designated hub they are given a credit on their account, or if the same cyclist that locked it up at a different hub returns it, they are refunded the charge. If a cyclist locks the bike outside of the system zone entirely (say off campus) then they are charged a larger recovery fee for taking the bike too far from the system core. I use campus as an example primarily because it seems like the most obvious and beneficial place for a set of bikes, though there are a variety of other hubs that could be easily fought for in the GLA.
Bike-sharing is an incredibly effective and efficient way to improve bike awareness and get more people out riding. Zoe Neal, owner of Lafayette’s own Virtuous Cycles, actually proposed this same idea to me in a conversation we had once, though at the time I don’t think either of us knew this company existed. My question to him was if he felt that bike sharing could negatively affect his business. It seems perfectly logical to me that if people can share bikes, they likely won’t purchase them… after all that is the point of collaborative consumption, less buying, more sharing. Zoe felt strongly that the important thing was getting a person to love riding bikes, quit driving so much, and get healthy (which is why Virtuous is such an amazing shop). Zoe went on to say that he felt once people started to have fun riding these shared bikes around, they would eventually decide they wanted or needed a bike of their own so they could ride places besides the designated areas or just a different style of bikes. I think that is an awesome concept to think about, but if that is the end result doesn’t that just perpetuate the cycle of consumerism? At that point, wouldn’t bike sharing just become another marketing tool to drive business?
It is a tricky question that lacks a simple answer. We all want to support our local businesses, and I think that it is clear that people who already shop regularly at shops like Virtuous or Hodson’s Bay would continue to shop there. However, we also know how fragile a local economy can be. Nearly ¼ (22.7% as of July 2011) of our county’s population comes from Purdue University. Granted, many of those students own and drive cars; however, if even a quarter of that number of enrolled students began sharing bikes instead of purchasing them, I can’t help but think the impact on local bike shops would be felt in some way. Recent discussions with local bike shop owners in a few Canadian cities that embraced bike-share programs have reflected a 30% decrease in their own bike rental efforts. Most of the store owners in Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa seem excited at the prospect of bike sharing in their city but struggle with the resulting impact on business. Still, it doesn’t seem that any have really gone out of business. Many shops still find, as Zoe suggested, that people still come in looking for bikes that can take them on longer rides over more varied terrain. In addition some shops have also worked out contracts with owners of the bike-share set-ups to complete all required maintenance on the bikes, thus providing supplemental income to make up for any possible lost sales. In cities where helmets are required, local shops also have had success in offering discounts to members of these bike-share systems. So it would seem that it is possible to have our cake and eat it too, though many of the cities studied are quite larger than our fair GLA.
In the end, the same questions could be raised for most collaborative consumer-focused industries and their potential impact on local business. I suppose that’s what makes flipping the switch from buying to sharing that much more of a difficult task. There will always be areas of our life in which we feel sharing is appropriate and easy, and yet, there will always be that one toy that my daughter will not ever let her friends play with.