Zipcar and the Economy of Sharing

At the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC on June 23-24, 2008, Robin Chase, the creator of Zipcar, talked about how we can use social technologies to tackle and solve social problems.

Zipcar and the Economy of Sharing
Photo: Gagdet Virtuoso, Creative Commons, Flickr

She started her presentation with a photograph of a half-empty glass of water. The question is not whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, she explained, but rather, “how much water do you want vs. how much water do you need?”

She listed the following problems facing the United States today:

  • Difficult financial markets
  • Tight government budgets
  • Aging infrastructure and a lack of infrastructure
  • Gas taxes that haven’t changed since 1993
  • Congestion
  • Global warming
  • Overextended consumers
  • Rising fossil fuel prices

And then she said, “As an entrepreneur, problems are really opportunities.”

“We’re trying to cut costs in an old-fashioned way,” she said. Owning assets in their entirety, like an entire car or swimming pool is an excessive way to spend money. We feel ourselves in a state of scarcity because we feel we have to own the whole asset, and “we just want a little piece of the benefits.” Abundance, conversely, is when we only pay for exactly what we need.

Robin Chase
Robin Chase

Zipcar is an example of this concept in action. People pay $50/year for their choice of shared vehicle, which not only provides consumers with a range of cars for their needs (vans, trucks, hybrids, SUVs), but also cuts back on cost and use.

“We have 200,000 people sharing 5,000 cars in 5,000 parking spaces,” chase said. “We have to do a heck of a lot more of [this]” from a sustainability perspective.

She mentioned, as an example, the project that she is working on: The US Department of Transportation is transitioning to charging drivers user fees on roads by the mile based on engine type instead of gas taxes. It will require an EasyPass type gadget and a nation-wide wireless system to go with it. Chase is pushing for the creation of a mobile Internet on the back of the wireless communication system.

“The architecture of abundance is for us all to be looking at where we have excess capacity,” on an individual, corporate and political level, she said.

By re-conceptualizing assets, scarcity can lead to abundance.

Disclosure: I ride trains.