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I Am a “Communal Enthusiast,” Thank You Very Much

June 1, 2012

Charles Hurt, a columnist for the Washington Times, personally insulted me the other day. He didn’t call me out by name – in fact, it would be deeply strange if he did and this blog would have a lot more readers today. But as I read his extremely weird column criticizing Capital Bikeshare, I thought, “Hey, that’s me he’s describing!” In his weird list of stereotypes, I’m both one of the “unliberated women in skirts,” as I have ridden a Bikeshare in a skirt, as well as the “urban environmental warrior” who “chooses to live in a … concrete city.” Not that I’m a stranger to bizarre stereotyping. After all, I’m a federal government employee, a bicyclist, and an environmentalist, all categories that frequently are painted with an overly broad set of criticisms. But something about this critique beyond its sexism, 1950s-Red Scarism (where the title of the post comes from), and general nonsensical nature struck me. It’s the fact that the article not only insults me, but unfairly critiques a fundamental philosophy about communal property that I believe is going to be a major part of a sustainable future.

Specifically, Hurt calls Capital Bikeshare “failed socialism,” complete with an unfunny joke about Sarah Palin and Russia. Now, I admit socialism has had its failures – much like capitalism or you know, any human system, it’s very hard to get right on the large scale. But applying that label to Capital Bikeshare is truly baffling.

In fact, if there’s one program that I’d point to as a successful communal project, it would be Capital Bikeshare. In less than two years, the program has reached two million rides and expects to surpass three million by the end of this year. It has 26,000 members across multiple counties and many more to come with its expansion into Montgomery County later this year. This year’s Bike to Work Day in the D.C. region had almost 2,000 more people participate than last year, strongly influenced by the availability of Bikeshare. Beyond the sheer numbers of people participating, Bikeshare has some great data backing up its societal benefit. For public health, Capital Bikeshare members have burned approximately 9.2 million calories, or 26,000 pounds of fat! In terms of environmental benefits, they reduced 728 tons of greenhouse gases compared to car trips, which is the same as not using more than 74,000 gallons of gasoline. (I calculated these statistics with the Capital Bikeshare dashboard, the EPA’s GHG calculator, and deriving some numbers from the personal benefits listed on my Bikeshare account.) It’s been so successful that New York City is replicating the program on a much larger scale.

But the value of organized systems of collective resources is far larger than bikeshare. Just a few examples include Zipcar and other carsharing companies, mass transit, community gardens, and food buying clubs/co-ops. Perhaps their most important benefit is that they make resources available to some people who would otherwise not have access to them because of physical or economic barriers. For example, mass transit makes transportation possible for people who cannot afford or drive a car. Community gardens allow people who can only afford an apartment to grow their own food on a larger scale than just a windowbox. Food co-ops or buying clubs can bring fresh, local food to neighborhoods that grocery stores (especially the high-end ones that carry better produce) won’t move into because they don’t see the business case. Relatedly, these systems also enable people to voluntarily choose not to own a resource because they know that it will be readily available. With carsharing, community gardens, and public parks, a city-dweller could feel much more comfortable picking a lifestyle where they don’t own a car or have a large house with a yard. Only using a resource when it is needed rather than leaving it idle for large portions of the day results in fewer resources being needed altogether. Lastly, these systems allow people to “try out” more sustainable behaviors for a low investment cost. Just the other day at BicycleSpace, I overheard a woman purchasing her own bike after becoming comfortable riding on the streets as a Bikeshare member.

This is the point at which people like Hurt essentially say, “Blargty blarg food lines in communist Russia, I won’t be able to own anything!” (Okay, that’s a slight oversimplification….) Besides the fact that actual socialism doesn’t work that way either, communal systems can serve important functions within a largely capitalist society. Also, these systems themselves can avoid the Tragedy of the Commons if they’re set up correctly. The Tragedy of the Commons, as described in an 1968 uber-famous academic paper by Garrett Hardin, is when a group of individuals misuse a communal resource for their own gain, ruining it for the entire group. In contrast, Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom and others since then have illustrated that the Tragedy of the Commons can be avoided if the group sharing the resource has specific rules with consequences set out, a sense of community with common purpose, and an understanding of the risks of non-cooperation.

Not surprisingly, all of the examples described above share many of these elements. All of them have explicit rules and punishments set out for misusing the resource, which help people value the resource more than they would otherwise. Unlike a very early system in Amsterdam where free bicycles ended up dumped in canals more than ridden, Capital Bikeshare charges your credit card $1000 if you don’t return a bike in 24 hours. While most consequences for misbehaving at community gardens or not showing up for your shift at a food co-op aren’t as severe, they still won’t welcome you back. (This is one thing that makes these particular systems far less prone to the Tragedy of the Commons than Hardin’s imaginary field – the co-owners can kick you out. The true Tragedy applies to resources where there is no practical way to exclude people.)

The flip side of the coin is building community. If people truly care about the commons and have social relationships with other users, they’re more likely to cooperate. Capital Bikeshare in particular does a great job of this by highlighting members of the month, encouraging people to send in photos of themselves, and linking bikesharing with local businesses. They’ve even used it to solve one of the problems Hurt describes in the article – bikes clumping up at certain popular locations. The “reverse rider” contest they held actually helped alleviate this problem. Of course, food co-ops and community gardens have long experience building community. It’s something that I think Metro could do a much better job of, as most of the community built around Metro is from complaining about it.

So Charles Hurt, Capital Bikeshare is not an example of “failed socialism.” In contrast, it’s a great example of a successful communal resource and there’s going to be plenty more where it came from.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy L. Seibel permalink
    June 1, 2012 7:05 pm

    Excellent points. One more is that everyone benefits when people use communal resources, including those who choose not to use them. If 50 people ride CaBis, rather than drive, that frees up road and parking space and bus seats for others. Resource sharing may threaten some economic interests but benefits others. Those feeling threatened will play the handiest “ist” and fear card available.

    • June 4, 2012 1:05 pm

      Very true. So often, both “hidden costs” and “hidden benefits” of how we organize society and what actions we incentivize are ignored because it’s difficult to put a dollar value on them. In addition, some people refuse to believe those aspects are actual costs or benefits. They only see the world in strictly short-term economic values. Having such a radically different set of values to me makes it difficult at best to have a productive conversation with them – you spend a lot of time disagreeing on fundamental assumptions.

  2. June 4, 2012 2:59 am

    The guy sounds like an idiot but there’s no finer way to ensure newspapet readership! Our system over here in London, UK has also been a resounding success. It was brought in by acfairly right-wing mayor as well. Some people just don’t like sharing I guess and/or the modern disease of them identifying themselves through the “stuff” they own has gripped them too tightly. Sad.

    • June 4, 2012 1:09 pm

      Thanks for leaving a comment! Most of the article seemed to be “let’s have a laugh at those silly bicycling liberals” but totally failed at being funny or making a decent point. To quote SF author John Scalzi, “The failure state of clever is asshole.”

      As for the Boris bikes, they look like grand fun too! But your “right-wing” tends to seem liberal compared to many of our Democrats.

  3. June 13, 2012 12:05 pm

    The CaBi, Zip Car, Netflix business model will be a primary form in the new planetary economy based on Net Planetary Value index. Extend the concept to housing, healthcare and education, not requiring exclusive ownership, but access when needed. Basic universal NPV affords this access. Increased personal NPV through effort, accomplishment (vocations will replace jobs), qualifies access to higher levels of goods and services. http://netplanetaryvalue.wordpress.com

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