Sharing: Humankind’s oldest technology is ready for a comeback

Long before automobiles and even science humankind discovered sharing tools, housing, roads, and wharfs, a natural way to reduce scarce labour and materials. And long before Adam Smith, we used the “profit” from such sharing to develop specialized skills and knowledge, both of which required sharing, and to build shared infrastructure. Now that we face rising prices for resources, thanks to looming shortages and better understanding of “externalities,” we need to face the prospect of putting on the brakes of our rush to individual consumption. Do we do without or do we share in ways that increase, rather than, reduce, our quality of life?

I had proposed to Ted Manning that this talk focus on what I consider an exciting future for carsharing. But I am an adventurous person, and when Ted Manning suggested I explore sharing more generally as a new global strategy to reduce consumption, I agreed. The Club of Rome has looked at controlling the human population; I want today to get us to focus on the population of stuff, to reduce the average personal footprint. This is especially important while the developing world looks to their developed brethren for a model of happiness and the role of consumption.

What makes sharing a “technology?”

So what makes sharing a “technology?” I first used these two words together when I was staffing a Vrtucar booth at our Canadian Museum of Science and Technology on Earth Day a decade ago. “Why aren’t your cars hybrids?” I was asked again and again. After explaining that sharing saved more fuel and pollution than putting using alternative fuels or putting electric motors with gasoline ones, I said that I thought sharing accomplished better efficiencies, because it addressed the social setting for the car.

Then I said, I consider sharing as humankind’s first technology, in the way it magnifies human intent and action through careful application of trusted principles. Besides saving members 50% of the distance they drive, it reduces by 95% the manufacturing costs, and suppresses over the long term both driving and urban.

The 1972 Club of Rome report, however, doesn’t have any reference to sharing, but I did find reference to technology. Meadows et. al. quoted Garrett Hardin in his famous ‘tragedy of the commons” article as saying that “a technological solution is ‘one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of changes in human values or ideas of morality.” So I have to disagree. There are social inventions, and sharing in its many forms, is probably the first; it might have predated language.

Five kinds of sharing

Today, I will list five kinds of sharing, I will focus on the forms that will bring the most significant savings in energy and other resources, and then I will list several rules or lessons that sharing signifies.

When Wilson Wood and I started Vrtucar in early 2000, I started thinking more about sharing, although, as the eldest of six children from a lower-middle-class family, I had a lot of experience. I learned a great deal from Petr Kropotkin’s 1902 book, Mutual Aid. I followed that by reading the then-new Age of Access by Jeremy Rifkin. They pointed out the problems of ownership, Kropotkin about how late in history private ownership emerged, as joint ownership was the norm for primitive people, and in the latter, how it may have reached the end of its usefulness, as people – and especially companies – seem to be ready to denigrate ownership in favour of access. In the areas of ideas and information, Hess and Ostrom’s more recent book on the “knowledge commons” criticizes the role of private ownership in information, proposing a new Open Source approach. Ostrom has written mostly about how resources are shared in collectivities, in the process debunking Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ trope, and winning the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics in the process (she is a political scientist, by the way).

In my research for this paper, I found that sharing is a very plastic word, being used in so many different ways. And I also found very little writing focused on it. And it is missing from the indices of the books I consulted. When it appears in Internet searches, it is, as you would expect, referring to information sharing, something I will make only limited reference to today. So if you agree with me that this is an important area of study and discussion, you will be joining me in a pioneering effort.

But I believe a lot more sharing is just ahead. Despite that fact that there has been little action on the 1972 report’s recommendations that the world must cut back on resource use, we are looking at imminent introduction of hefty taxes being assessed on most goods and many programs and being devised to pay for various ‘externalities.’

What Makes Up Sharing?

First, there are the stories of sharing we hear as youngsters and the examples we see practiced as we get older. We all learn the stories of human cooperation so we know that we can share more, and this sharing supports other values, such as diversity, philanthropy, civic life, and compassion. Look at examples in children’s literature. The Wind in the Willows and The Secret of Nimh – both the subject of Disney movies. Or what about the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Second, we are developing information technology, which is a very important sharing tool. The carsharing industry is taking leadership in just this area, not technology to drive the car so much, but to share it, and to provide monitoring so the owner, who rarely spends time driving or even sitting in the car, can take proper care of it so it is a reliable resource to his customers.

Technology can become the booking and tracking system, via the Internet. Each shared item can be registered on a website, going beyond what helps the car to go, to how it can be accessible via an online reservation system, send out monthly invoices, take each out of circulation for regular maintenance, and find it when it isn’t where the booking system says it should be. It can also provide a history of use, and produce the owner’s manual when a question arises.

It also has to power to take sharing further: to book each seat for a different member for ridesharing, and to keep track of a range of availability locations when one-way trips are permitted. There is no reason that the same applications can allow just about any object to be shared.

Third, we are developing a language of scale: at what scale are shared things to be available? Car-rental things the small town or cluster of urban neighbourhoods is the right scale. But car-sharing uses points along main streets, much closer together. For example, I wrote a chapter for the book, Beyond the Car, in 1995, which pointed out that the demise of the corner store has led to the current trend in super-sized houses, thanks to the longer distance the occupants have to travel for food, which means that shopping occurs less frequently but in larger quantities. This require more space to store food. Rather than pick up the raw materials for dinner at the corner store, we buy it a week or two in advance, which requires freezers and larger fridges. And of course, the change means more reliance on the car, translating in more cars requiring more off-street parking space and the transformation of the car from being a household appliance to a personal one, and one used for special occasions to being used 6-7 times a day. And with affluence, the microwave, along with the TV, stereo, and computer, have transformed to be a personal appliance, part of every bedroom. Carsharing is trying to say that cars are items that belong to the block. Scale is an issue to be addressed by the science of ecology, as Tim Allen has done.

Fourth, we need to continue to develop a psychology of consumption of durables, which, after all, should never be ‘consumed.’ The dichotomy between need and want is not sufficient. The BBC series “The Century of the Self,” shows how much effort and study has gone into mindless consumption at the personal scale.

What might drive consumption for shared use?

I believe that we need to realize that the bulk of consumption today is mostly a form of self-reward or to capture a positive emotion that has been lost in the buyer’s life. When a durable item is bought for such a purpose, the self-reward wanes long before the item is worn-out. If the use of an item is fleeting, it is then fitting that we developing a fleeting form of access to it. We have to recognize when purchases become part of a treat/treat-ment marketplace. These self-rewards/treatments are our way of putting up with resentments caused by perceived mistreatment from those who have power over us in certain situations: employers, professionals, government officials, even the people serving us at Customer Service at WalMart.

We can feel resentment even when someone we care about is mistreated. In a world of very large institutions, we are have little chance of reforming the way we are treated. The biggest is government, which Richard Sennett, in his 1974 book, The Fall of Public Man, discusses. He suggests “the politics of resentment” is used by politicians who coach voters to use their ballot and their lungs to punish or “teach a lesson to” those in government they or someone or some class has been mistreated by. The politician uses the language of resentment to show that he is not one of “them”.

The cycle of resentment and reward make up what I call the “burn cycle.” Owning a house means insulating oneself from mean landlords. Owning a car means not having to be berated by a transit official for blocking the aisle or not writing your ID number of this month’s bus pass, or being abused by another passenger. In contrast, a sharing society, on the other hand, can focus on experiences, really the only thing people need to “own”. The Buddhist idea that life consists of contemplation and action creates a different cycle, where we every day elaborate our mental model of our world. Life, in this context, is a learning process. The name of this the cycle of contemplation and action is the learn cycle.

Third, we need to be clear about what kinds of things can be successfully shared, and which kinds of sharing will have environmental benefits. I find there are five classes of things we share.

Five classes of things we share

The first is information, which was the first to benefit from mass production. When things were only in print form, the was competition over the copies, each of which cost a great deal. Now we have the Internet and e-books. No more queuing; lower costs of access.

However, there are still issues of how poorer people get access when they can’t afford a digital reader, or don’t live in a city with big libraries. And if they are scholars, they will find the cost of subscriptions to learned journals to be very high. This last issue is by Hess and Ostrom, of the growing battle over copyright and access of learned journals, and the counter movement of Open Access which is campaigning authors to subscribe to, especially most of authors of articles don’t make any money from their writing (and in fact often pay the publisher), and to accept reduced author’s rights in return for greater free access.

Second type of goods to be shared are natural resources, the ones that the original Club of Rome report of 1972 discussed.

Third, are the sharing of labour through job-sharing, local labour exchanges via separate currencies, and an Internet forum where comments about tradespeople can be shared (Angie’s List). The book, Your Money or Your Life is one of many books that counsel people to live on less in order to buy their life back by picking only the kind of work they are passionate about, and it for no more hours a week than one wants. This is putting consumption into perspective!

Fourth, there is the form of sharing that we might call “sharity.” in which what we share is money and sometimes our time, as volunteers (which is different than the prior category). The recent devastation of the earthquakes in Haïti and Chile show how mobile and immediate such a form of sharing is. There seems also to be a resurgence in the very wealthy taking philanthropy seriously, e.g,, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Bill Clinton.

But offsetting this is the growth in gated communities, which Christopher Lasch, in his 1995 essay, “Revolt of the Elites,” pointed out have made the top quintile of socio-economically stop caring as much about the less fortunate and about social problems generally. These people disown problems of “the commons,” since they can afford to send their kids to private schools, to hire private security firms and install elaborate security systems, and to even get cars that are less susceptible to crumpling in a collision. Whereas, true social cohesion requires all people to feel as though they have a common fate: “I’m all right, Jack.” vs.”We all in this together.”

Finally, are the durable items. These are what I am focusing on today, the sharing of objects that are manufactured, of spaces and rooms in buildings, and some of the appliances and tools that are part of them.

Lessons from carsharing

Let me first describe briefly the industry I was a part of for almost seven years. It has grown locally in ten year from zero to 60 cars and 1200 members, and internationally since 1988 to tens of thousands of car, mostly in the older parts of cities. Compared with car-rental, it a) locates cars at unstaffed locations along main streets, b) provides use periods as short a half and hour, c) includes gas and collision insurance in the rates, d) and invoices uses once a month, like your electricity bill.

The result is that carsharing is deemed environmental, whereas car rental is not. The reason is that carsharing replaces private ownership, whereas most car-rental customers own cars, but their cars is in the wrong city, is being repaired, or is the wrong vehicle for a particular use. Six or seven Vrtucar stations are within a five minute walk of where you are sitting now, including one at City Hall.

I have used the last three years of my second retirement to develop an expanded vision of carsharing that will see it encompass the other forms of what I call “metered access to shared cars” (or MASC). As a result I see it becoming the preferred means of using cars in cities. I forecast cars in cities being subject to fees for parking, and various forms of pollution and congestion charges. They will also be required to carry GPS devices that record their location at all times, making driving, finally, as accountable as it is dangerous.

What drives the vision is the poor efficiency of car-use. Only 1% of average car is utilized. This is the product of the 5% of the day (1.5 hours a day) that it is on the road times the 20% of its interior that is occupied by humans and cargo, on average. And those numbers don’t take into account the legendary inefficiency of the engine, the large number of pounds of car needed for each pound of ‘cargo,’ nor the amount of manufacturing and transport-to-dealer resources each car represents.

Carsharing in today’s configuration addresses the factor, and only for those who use a car much less that 5% of each day. In fact, shared cars are driven as many kilometres a year as personal cars of the same age. But they are usually occupied by one person and they sit idle during the time the user is doing her business. Vrtucar’s business model is based on only six hours of use each day, which only raises the 5% rate to 25% , and the total kms driven is no more than the average personal car.

Other day-to-day sharing forms

The new bikesharing companies – like Bixi of Montreal that set up four test stations last summer in Ottawa – is showing how allowing one-way trips increases utilization. By adding a facility to allow carshare members to rideshare, the customers-to-cars ratio, I suspect, will climb from 20:1 to over 100:1. These people will, incidentally, be making other lifestyle adjustments, such as locating their residence and other destinations, including their job, in mixed-use, higher density areas.

The next frontier will be the longer urban commutes. Shared cars are not used that much at rush hour, which shows the good sense of members. But there is a great load put on the transit system at these times that shared cars could help meet; over 2/3 of OC Transpo’s buses and drivers are used mostly during rush-hours. To help, a percentage of shared cars could be designated for suburban use, areas that have none now, and have two locations each: one at a suburban business parks to be available during the workday for personal and business travel that would otherwise be done in a personal car driven solo to work each day (even when it is not needed during the day), and one in a residential subdivision, where it will replace many second cars (many of them used only for commuting) for evening and weekend uses. I suspect 7-8-passenger vans will be best for this.

In the longer term, we can accommodate on-the-fly pickups, like taxis and buses, using a booking system that can book seats in a series of vehicles – with guaranteed wait times between sections of no more than 2 minutes – seamlessly, as what I call “trans-seat” erases the distinctions between carsharing, car-rental, taxis, and ridesharing schemes. It will even regularize hitchhiking – and will allow for both security of such rides and allow for the driver to collect revenue from those she is giving a ride to.

The other area of sharing I foresee being able to make big dents in consumption use is what is called co-housing. Heating homes constitutes a high percentage of energy demand. We already see a form of shared spaces in tourism and business travel, in the form of hotels, motels, B&Bs, and time-shares. But many travellers are leaving behind an empty house or and many more an empty bedroom. The Internet is being used to “swap” houses, and a resort condo scheme at Mont Ste. Marie, north of Gatineau, had each unit’s two second-floor bedrooms open independently to a communal hallway, which except for a few weeks a year, were rented as hotel suites, with revenues shared with the unit’s owner.

Co-Housing is another kind of sharing of spaces, but more like ridesharing than car-rental. What is shared are those rooms in most houses that are not used that often: A cluster of these trimmed down houses are constructed along with what is called a “common house” which has a large formal dining room and adjoining kitchen, a workshop or two, and usually a couple guest bedrooms. The dining room and common kitchen is used daily to serve meals to those who don’t want to or can’t prepare an evening meal, such as latchkey kids. And some have a media room for accommodating larger crowds to share a video (usually the audience is the youngsters living there, thus removing a noise source from individual units). This is a common sharing sense solution to a trend in the last 35 years that has seen houses double in size while the number of people in the average household has dropped by almost half.

To make this efficiency breakthrough in housing available to more people, we need to work out a way to introduce it for existing housing. In fact, Ottawa’s only co-housing project, Terra Firma, in Old Ottawa East, uses two existing three-door rows. The common house and seventh living unit were later built in the gap between them. The existence of one of these units for a block of say, 50 homes, would enable the remaining 49 private units to be retrofitted to hold two families each, increasing density and thereby “business” for local merchants. This more dense housing is a natural match for carsharing, since it brings things closer, translating to less need to travel far and thus less need for a car. All that is needed is for the Ontario government to duplicate the enabling legislation for BIA – business improvement areas, which permits retail and office businesses group together to form corporations to do extra work than what City provides, and adds to each business’ property taxes the appropriate share of that budget each year. These Resident Improvement Areas would need to be able to own real property.

Third Places

Corner stores also have a role here. These relics of the pre-automobile period of 70 or so years ago are dying slowly. As a result their prices are higher, selection limited, and turnover questionable. Why couldn’t these stores be revived by making them part of the distribution of mail (community mail boxes are ironically only in newer areas) and the pick up of recyclables, saving the nuisance of big trucks stopping at each house and allowing much more refined sorting than individual households can now be trusted to do competently. It would also provide employment to young people. They could also have change rooms for catalog clothes to help the catalog business reduce fraud and ensure returned items are repackaged correctly. It might be possible that such outlets could double as common houses as well, so the latter would not have to be dependent on cooperative arrangements. “Runs” to the store would not require either a car or an adult.

These two place would add to the block level the kinds of places sociologist Ray Oldenberg, in his book The Great Good Place, describes as “third places.” The beauty parlours, pubs, cafes, etc. usually serve whole neighbourhoods by provide the easy-going relations that are free of the duties and responsibilities of “first places” (our homes) and “second places” (workplaces). When these are nearby, they can allow private residences to be smaller, which is another reason, beside savings on transportation, that housing in such areas costs more per square foot.

Another synergy between carsharing and co-housing concepts comes from freeing up parking spaces on private property for additional open space or housing. People may have a choice whether or not to have a car of their own, but thanks to zoning, they are required to own their own parking space (and each driveway eliminates one or two curb spaces for parking). Robert Putnam, in his extensive study on why civic engagement is in decline, Bowling Alone, concluded that automobility and suburban sprawl are the 2nd most significant factor. Local government officials should realizing that building more roads encourages driving, which in turn, works to diminish social capital. Walkability is “in”; speedy traffic is “out.”

The sharing of transportation and some of the housing functions will open the door to sharing of tools and appliances, thanks to the presence of shared spaces and a pre-existing common ownership structure. I can see clothes washers and dryers being shared, and later being manufacture red to be larger and more intelligent. The tools in the workshops should also be shared. I can also see these houses or corner stores providing a kind of social networking that one can’t find on the Net: neighbourhood networking about what is new very locally, and what problems need to be addressed. .

As many of the buyers of consumer items represent groups of people, I can see the standards for these items changing. Taking them out of the consumer market and into the ICI or B2B market, where there is more standardization of placement of controls, performance and efficiency standards are higher, and there is less variability for “taste” and “style.”

A final kind of sharing of things will be reserved for yet smaller, more personal items, like clothing and various person gadgets. These are smaller, so storage isn’t so much an issue. Rather than calling it sharing, you might think of it as serial ownership. Whereas the car industry accommodates this within the dealer networks, with areas for “pre-owned” cars, retailers of clothing, furniture and accessories, tools and utensils do not. These items too often go right into the garbage, once they get “in the way.” We need more than garage sales, second-hand stores, want-ads, or “gleaning” (e.g., dumpster diving); we need depots within the neighbourhood where these items can be dropped off and in many cases repaired or otherwise rehabilitated or adapted to new uses. Living near the University of Ottawa reveals the dimensions of the wholesale jettisoning of valuable household effects every spring.

Eleven Conclusions:

1/ Sharing can become a significant way to reduce our footprint without doing completely without. It works best when a) needs for things are not urgent, b) the items being shared cost more than the value of ownership, c) ownership imposes high costs of storage and maintenance, and d) the individual has certain qualities and values: frugality, willing to defer gratification, and keeps good records.

2/ The act of sharing itself builds the conditions for further growth in sharing: adding shared spaces, building trust, adding communication between individuals, strengthening of local ties.

3/ Sharing is best done where people live in medium density physically close to each other along walkable streets, and where there are common spaces for storing what is shared. Increasing shifts of population to cities is a good sign.

4/ The coming tax measures focusing on reducing demand for items that have large footprints will raise prices and induce shifts to sharing. There is also a growing interest in returning to a sense of community, including their diversity of age, income, and background.

5/ Sharing can make major contributions to the size of the footprint for the three most “heavy” parts of footprints: transportation, housing, and manufacturing of major personal and household items.

6/ Resistance to sharing should be expected. It will mainly come from affluence and a desire to protect personal privacy, which are current factors inhibiting sharing within households and workplaces. Introducing sharing voluntarily will reduce resentment.

7/ The digitalization of communication and knowledge and miniaturization of devices that access these things will make sharing both more personal and more portable. We should see the mobile phone replacing the point-of-sale devices for all transportation: transit, bikesharing, parking (yes, all of it will soon be charged for), taxi rides, ridesharing, carsharing, and even hitchhiking. It will even be sensitive enough to manage reserved seating in vehicles, and be able to distinguish between a person sitting in a seat or standing next to it (imaging being charged less when not sitting!)

8/ A further dividend of telematics is that very little personal communication is necessary in the “handshaking” between users, either those sharing sequentially or simultaneously. This will reduce errors and misunderstanding. If fines are built in for transgressions and applied fairly, there will be few problems.

9/ I.T. can also vary charges for use based on demand, not based just on historical trends, but calculated on-the-fly as real-time statistics are read. Peak-hour premium rates can be used to dampen use when demand might exceed supply, and it can stimulate demand, perhaps by waiving any fee at all, when demand is very low. And in the case of one-way carsharing, it can deal with the daily problem of cars being left at places that doesn’t match the next morning’s demand. The booking system will be able to offer a “negative fee” (a payment) for people willing to drive it on their way home.

10/ The manner in which humans make decisions to acquire “stuff” needs to be studied. What motivations are being tapped. Are they rational and utilitarian, or do they tap emotions that are not meant to be under continuous activation, rather than for serious instances only (although some people face conditions, some of their own authorship, that keep them facing crisis continuously). Is there some way to further study the concept of “positional goods, as identified by Fred Hirsch in 1978 in his book Social Limits to Growth.

11/ Part of the emotional side of acquisitions is perception that having exclusive ownership provides privacy, which is tied in many people’s minds to freedom. We need to understand privacy of this type – privacy from peers vs. that from government and employers – to understand how we can overcome this resistance.

# # #


Bradshaw, Chris (1995) “Walkability”, in Zielinsky, Sue & Gordon Laird (eds.) (1995)
Beyond the Car: Essays on the Car Culture [Steel Rail Press, Toronto]
“The Scalar Hierarchy Integrity Principle (SHIP)” (1998) presentation ESAC, Ottawa
“Neigh-Net” (1993)
“Using Our Feet to Reduce Our Footprint” in Local Environment (journal), Vol II, #1 (Jan ’97)
Dominguez, Joe and Laura Robin (1992) Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship to Money and Achieving Financial Independence
Chermayeff, Serge & Christopher Alexander (1963) Community & Privacy
Etzioni, Amitai (1999) The Limits to Privacy
Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968)
Hess, Charlotte & Elinor Ostrom (eds.) (2007) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice
Hirsch, Fred (1978) Social Limits of Growth
Kropotkin, Petr (1902) Mutual Aid
Lasch, Christopher (1995) Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy
Meadows, Donella, et. al. (1972) The Limits of Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome
Oldenburg, Ray (1991) The Great Good Place: cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day
Ostrom, Elinor (1991) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action
Putnam, Robert (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Rifkin, Jeremy (2000) Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life is a Paid-for Experience. Sennett, Richard (1974) The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism
BBC series “The Century of the Self,”

About the author:

Chris Bradshaw retired from city & regional planning in 1996, and co-founded Ottawa’s carsharing company, Vrtucar in 2000. He has been an advocate for walking and pedestrian rights for 30 years. In retirement, he is championing a society-wide transition to a second-generation version of carsharing (integrating car-sharing, taxis, ridesharing, car-rental, and delivery). He lives ‘car-lite’ in downtown Ottawa with his wife of 40 years. This paper is taken from a talk he delivered to the Canadian chapter of the Club of Rome on 10 March 2010 in Ottawa Canada.

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