Local Columnists

Kansas City adjusts to a culture of sharing

Last week, Mayor Sly James defended Kansas City’s regulatory pushback against Lyft, a new ride-sharing service.

“The City will not allow any firm to waltz into town with a business model that does not ensure public safety,” he wrote. “Would you really want to patronize a restaurant who hasn’t been properly inspected to protect you and your family against illness?”

It’s an interesting and important question.

The initial answer is clearly no. When you go out for lunch or dinner, you assume someone has checked behind the refrigerator to ensure a safe experience.

On the other hand, if I have friends over for backyard hamburgers, I don’t expect — nor do my guests — that the city has inspected the grill. My friends accept a small risk in exchange for the pleasure of a shared experience.

The courts will now decide where Lyft fits on that continuum. Is it a public carrier, subject to government oversight like taxis, buses and limos? Or is it a 21st century way for strangers to share a ride?

Whatever the legal system decides, we should understand that Lyft reflects a fascinating culture of sharing that may define commerce and government over the next generation.

Young adults share more than rides to the store. They share apartments, clothes, music, books. Sometimes they share jobs. They share photos, news, information, education — Facebook has a billion users because young people like to share.

That seems quirky to an older generation built on ownership. I’ve owned cars since I was 22. My daughter, living in Washington, D.C., sold hers — easier to rent a car for a couple of hours or ride a bike. Her sister prefers Spotify to owning a music CD.

It’s hard to know if that approach will stick as 20-somethings grow older. Maybe they’ll want big houses in the burbs, with big TVs and furniture. Maybe they’ll want to own things.

Or maybe not. Maybe millennials prefer experiences — travel, art, food, music. Maybe they’re willing to accept a slightly higher risk that their news is unreliable, that their food might not be completely safe or that their ride involves a risk.

If the trend continues, it suggests fundamental changes in a whole range of public and private institutions. What happens to sales tax revenue if people stop buying cars and sofas, or buy them less often? What happens if homes go unsold?

What does it mean if Americans would rather share a ride than own a car? We may soon find out.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.