Thursday, July 7, 2016
Seemingly overnight, companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, WeWork, Taskrabbit, Shyp, and many others have transformed transportation, accommodations, personal services, and other sectors. The evolving regulatory response to this “sharing economy” presents an intriguing puzzle. Where telephone, broadband, early Internet companies, and similar previous technologies were shaped by battles with federal regulators, the fate of sharing enterprises is playing out in front of taxi and limousine commissions, zoning boards, and city councils.
The reason for this atypical dynamic, this Article argues, is that — unlike prior technological disruptions — the sharing economy is fundamentally an urban phenomenon. The platforms that enable sharing leverage or confront conditions of density, proximity, specialization, and even anonymity that mark city life. And many sharing companies flourish through a kind of regulatory arbitrage that finds value in frictions and barriers generated by urban regulatory regimes.
A fascinating experimentalist dialectic is emerging from the resulting decentralized regulatory landscape. Local economic, political, legal, and social conditions are generating regulatory responses that range from full embrace to open hostility. And sharing enterprises are responding by adjusting their business models and reconciling in various ways to these regulatory constraints. These compromises are generating creative solutions to balancing innovation and public welfare.
The interaction between urban governance and the sharing economy, however, flows both ways. Local governments are being pushed to be more transparent about their policy interests, creating spillover effects in regulatory regimes beyond the sharing economy. And the sharing economy is transforming cities themselves. The shift from ownership to access is altering development and mobility patterns as traditional links between transportation, housing, and labor markets and the shape of metropolitan space morph.
By framing the sharing economy as an urban phenomenon, this Article sheds important new light on a rapidly emerging scholarly discourse. To date, scholars have failed to recognize the sharing economy’s deep reliance on the urban fabric and its potential to mold that fabric. Understanding this relationship will also lead to better calibrated regulatory responses that reflect the sharing economy’s holistic impact on cities. Equally important, it will firmly ground our understanding of the sharing economy in its urban birthplace as it matures.