Sharing In Portland
During a one-mile walk in the neighborhood, there is a lot to see. There’s the neighbor down the street who rents her extra room to short-term visitors through an online service. There’s the family with a little lending library, offering up old romance novels to passersby on the sidewalk. There’s the coffee shop that is always filled with people typing away on laptops, using the space and its Wi-Fi as an office. There are parking spaces reserved for Zipcar, a number of Car2Go vehicles, and any number of cars in motion that could be part of a service like Uber or Lyft. These cars could be used to pick up tools at the local tool library, a blender from the kitchen library, children’s clothes from the Swap and Play, or to haul a harvest of fruits and vegetables gleaned from someone else’s backyard.
This time of year is often one where we focus on sharing, but, in reality, as people who live in an urban environment the season of sharing is year-round. Cities have always facilitated sharing – ideas, space, materials, and more. The recent development of technology that makes it easy for peer-to-peer sharing of things like housing and transportation has brought increased attention to the “sharing economy”. New technologies and services have also posed regulatory and enforcement challenges for cities, as well as additional complexities to how cities plan for the future.
As we’ve seen in Portland and other cities over the past few years, sharing services don’t always fit neatly into existing land use and transportation regulations. Traditional Euclidean zoning, where zones are created to separate uses from one another, seeks predictability through structured lists of permitted used. These are turned on end when you introduce short-term rentals into what have traditionally been zones created for single family homes, for example.
The challenge has been in finding that sweet spot that allows for innovation and change, while also mitigating the negative impacts that the regulations were designed to prevent in the first place. There’s also the additional complexities and costs associated with enforcing (or not enforcing) new regulations. And there’s the difficulty in measuring impacts in real time. For example, do we know how much short-term rentals have or haven’t contributed to rising housing costs in Portland? What impacts has on-demand transportation service had on our transportation network? This is tricky business.
While much attention has been focused on the challenges cities are facing adapting to things like new sharing services, there should probably be an equal focus on where opportunities might exist for private peer-to-peer services to serve a public purpose and to think about what that could mean for how a city plans for its future physical development.
One example of this involves everyone’s favorite topic: parking. There are parts of Portland where on-street parking is at or near capacity. In those same parts of Portland, there are private driveways that remain empty for most or all of the day. Services exist that would enable matching people looking for a parking space with people who have space on their driveway. This could benefit both the consumer and the provider, while also serving a larger public good by freeing up an on-street parking spot. Current regulations prohibit people from renting out that driveway space. Changing these regulations is one possibility that might emerge from PBOT’s Centers and Corridors Parking Study.
There are undoubtedly other opportunities that exist for sharing services to match unused or underutilized resources with those who could use them. Private companies are leading the way with this, but it could also be healthy for government and non-profit agencies to look at their own assets through this lens and see how they could be differently used. What other uses could take place at schools? How can we better utilize surplus government properties? Could church parking lots that sit empty for six days a week be used for something that benefits both the larger community and the church?
At an even higher level, it is interesting to think about what a sharing society could mean for the physical space of a city. What impact could it have on the types of buildings that are built for where we live and work? What could it mean for the future of transportation, both public and private, and the infrastructure that facilitates the movements of goods and people? We know that roads aren’t going away and that we all can’t work using the Wi-Fi at the coffee shop down the street, but we also know something is a-move at the moment. All you need to do is take a walk down the street.