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December 13, 2013 at 6:00 AM

The rise — and early challenges— of Seattle’s shared economy

Seattle’s blossoming “shared economy” is disrupting the way many of us live, how we get around town and the places we choose to vacation. Turns out the upside of the recent economic downturn is a new willingness among more people to share their personal assets to make extra money, work flexible hours and interact with total strangers.

The growth of this movement is powered by a new generation interested in meaningful connections and sustainable living in a world with limited resources.

Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin moderates a panel Dec. 11, 2013 on the state of Seattle's shared economy at Impact Hub Seattle. From left to right: Conlin, Natalie Foster of Peers, John Zimmer of Lyft, Joe Mele of StowThat, Holly Houser of Puget Sound Bikeshare, Kristina Bindi of Car2Go, Lindsey Engh of Impact Hubs Seattle (Photo by Thanh Tan/The Seattle Times)

Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin moderates a panel Dec. 11, 2013 on the state of Seattle’s shared economy at Impact Hub Seattle. From left to right: Conlin, Natalie Foster of Peers, John Zimmer of Lyft, Joe Mele of StowThat, Holly Houser of Puget Sound Bikeshare, Kristina Bindi of Car2Go, Lindsey Engh of Impact Hubs Seattle (Photo by Thanh Tan/The Seattle Times)

On Wednesday, a forum at Impact Hub Seattle brought together folks at the vanguard of the sharing economy, including John Zimmer of the ridesharing service Lyft, Holly Houser of the forthcoming Puget Sound Bikeshare, Lindsey Engh of co-working space Impact Hub Seattle, Joe Mele of StowThat (a storage rental company) and Kristina Bindi of Car2Go.

Hearing their stories got me thinking about some of my own recent interactions with what The Economist refers to as the peer-to-peer rental economy.

  • A few months ago, I wrote a column about the growth of co-working spaces. More than 20 incubators around the region now host entrepreneurs and freelancers with big ideas and a readiness to share their creativity in common offices.
  • In November, my friends and I stayed in two different places posted on Airbnb, which is a web site that allows private property owners worldwide to list and rent out their extra space to visitors. Both times, we stayed with gracious hosts who knew when to recommend local places to check out and when to leave us alone. In return, we felt good knowing we were helping them to make some extra income, too.
  • During my first several months in Seattle, I relied heavily on car-sharing services Car2Go and Zipcar because I didn’t own a personal vehicle.
  • Though I’m no longer car-less, I regularly use my smartphone to connect to ride-sharing services like Lyft and UberX. There’s no better way to save time and to avoid parking fees.

There’s obviously consumer demand for these services, but Seattle needs to jump-start a broader discussion. As members of the panel pointed out Wednesday, the city is struggling to reconcile its dual desires for innovation and structure through regulations.

Lyft, for example, uses app technology to connect passengers to drivers using their personal vehicles. The service is massively popular, but it’s also technically illegal in a city that heavily regulates taxis. The City Council is considering ways to regulate ride-sharing companies, but Zimmer warns some of the proposed changes (to be discussed Friday by a Seattle City Council sub-committee) could lead to Lyft’s closure in Seattle.

Bike-sharing is set to begin in 2014, but Houser said her nonprofit faces early challenges such as zoning rules and design codes that hamper Puget Sound Bikeshare’s ability to secure sponsorships and storage areas.

The bottom line: Everyone talks a good game about the importance of awarding innovation, but existing rules aren’t always set up to deal well with disruptive and unregulated phenomena.

How do we strike the right balance?

Comments | Topics: bikes, lyft, ridesharing

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