In Depth

Share or be square: Las Vegas has all the answers

Housing, local transport, even air travel – Las Vegas is the capital of the growing 'sharing economy'

Columnist Edie Lush

The ‘sharing economy’ ball keeps rolling. This week Debbie Wosskow’s report for the government suggested that Britain could be at the forefront of the global sharing economy if a few vital changes were made (namely, deal with the tax and insurance issues). 

Also, BMW joined the ranks of those who share when it announced it was introducing its DriveNow service in London, a competitor to ZipCar and described by the Financial Times as ‘Boris Bikes for cars’.

It’s worth spending a moment on this concept of the sharing economy. I recently got into a heated Twitter debate about whether this was a misnomer for ‘business’. After all, sharing doesn’t cost anything, yet none of the businesses at the heart of the sharing economy give you anything for free. Airbnb, Uber, Etsy, LoveHomeSwap, PeoplePerHour and BlaBlaCar still charge people to use other peoples’ services, cars and houses.  

Yet it feels different to use these services. It feels different to swap houses with someone on a home exchange website rather than just renting. You get to know people even though you’ve never met in person. The people I swapped homes with last summer are my Facebook friends and send me Christmas cards.  

It feels different using Uber to being in a normal taxi. You know who is going to pick you up, and you know they’re going to be nice because they want a good rating from you. (I know, Uber’s had a bad rap recently. It still feels different from hailing a cab on the street).  

The company I’ve found that perhaps gets the closest to the true meaning of the word ‘share’ is Sofar Sounds, an outfit that brings bands to your living room. 

I wasn’t paid for my living room which for two hours became the home of three bands and 60 people I’d never met before. But I did get an evening of phenomenal music, and the young musicians got an appreciative audience and free publicity. Again, friendly and fun. 

I recently visited Las Vegas and its Downtown Project for the second time in six months. No one there is worrying about whether the sharing/lending/renting/swapping economy, or ‘collaborative consumption’ as it’s also known, is a misnomer. They’re just getting on with making it happen. 

I spoke to Kacy Qua, who works closely with Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh. Qua also consults with companies on future trends, innovation and “leaning outside the system”. 

One of the projects the Downtown Project is involved with is a collection of Airstream caravans and tiny houses. Qua told me it was an experiment in “co-housing, in which individual material belongings are reduced and shared community resources are developed”.  

Rather than everyone having a house with several rooms used only when guests visit, the Airstreams and tiny houses offer small private spaces surrounded by things that are shared, like “hammocks, fire pits, cooking areas, co-working spaces, musical jam spaces, a playground, game areas, a movie screen, guest sleeping spaces and laundry".

When I asked Qua what she thought about the sharing economy she pointed out that rather than worrying about the semantics, what was interesting was to think about what came out of these experiments.  

The Airstream and tiny houses project could, she said, be used to develop “fairly rapid housing solutions with lower capital expenditure, timelines and permitting requirements”. There are also tremendous social benefits that result from the “sense of community” this type of model provides.   

And anytime you speak to anyone involved in the Las Vegas Downtown Project it always gets back to “collisionable hours” - i.e. the number of hours that someone is out and about in the neighbourhood in a public or semi-public way (sidewalks, parks, bars, restaurants, cafes) that creates an opportunity for serendipitous interactions to occur. 

Why do they care? Because a "city of collisions is a city where people learn, grow, and innovate".

While London has rentable (sharable, collaborative) bikes, cars, and taxis, all available on loan on different apps, Las Vegas now has one app, SHIFT, which provides you access to all transportation. It’s like the wormhole to transportation nirvana.  

After pressing a button on your phone, SHIFT connects you - within five minutes - to a car, bike or driver who allows you to get where you want to go. You can choose to park and drive back home, or not.  

Zach Ware, CEO of SHIFT, told me: “I think the overall sharing economy does a great job taking assets and services that we aren’t using - like our cars which sit idle 90-95 per cent of the time - and making them more productive.  

“But a car doesn’t solve all of your needs. Sometimes you can’t or shouldn’t drive. And often the car you have is much larger than you would actually need to cover your immediate goals.” 

Another Las Vegas company turning transportation on its head through the sharing economy is Surf Air. Jeff Potter, CEO of Surf Air, told me that all airlines are in essence sharing economy businesses, which when I think about it is probably true.  

Surf Air is a “private air travel membership business”.  For $1,750 a month, Surf Air members can take unlimited flights between the places it serves (currently Nevada and California). They can book flights by phone three minutes before departure and arrive 30 minutes before take-off. 

“There are serious stress points when you fly these days. Surf Air seeks to remove, or at the very least reduce, those stress points. No booking hassles, no lines, no crowds, no security.” 

It doesn’t really matter in the end if these companies are members of some new, collaborative, sharing world. What matters is that they are making life easier and more interesting for the people in Las Vegas - and I wouldn’t mind if they came to Britain, too.

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