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Does the Recession Make Us Want To Share Or Just to Save?
Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu of The Washington Post.

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu of The Washington Post.

It’s always exciting to see a colleague’s picture in the newspaper. Fellow EMBARQer Chris Ganson made it onto the Washington Post’s cover for riding SmartBike! Very cool.

The article looked at how the recession has made us want to share more things. There are lots of quotes from psychologists arguing “The financial resources are beyond our control, but the emotional resources are not. And we seek out each other. We rely on each other” or “Sharing is one of the things that first of all makes you feel better about yourself.” It’s an entire article as if the recession was not an economic depression, but a mental one; it’s America as Eeyore.

Of course, interviews with the subjects of the article don’t make this assumption. For example, “‘I’m not going to go out and buy a $500 tile saw just to do one project,’ said Burdett, a television producer who lives in Edgewater. ‘Just ask for help and help people out.’” It’s not that Burdett was feeling bad because of the recession and wanted to share. It’s that he needed to save money and sharing was an ancillary benefit.

Or take Ganson. The Post writes of him that “Chris Ganson, 35, a city planner, has embraced the sharing mentality in several ways. He has joined the city’s Smart Bike program as well as Zipcar. ‘It’s convenient and it saves money,’ he said.” Chris joined these programs for the same reasons everyone does; they are cost-effective ways of getting around. He isn’t actively excited to know that someone else used that very same bike earlier that day (except insofar as these programs are good for the environment, which is a very big thing).

Zero of the examples cited in the article begin with a desire to share; each is an attempt to spend money more wisely.

This is really quite important important for those of us thinking about sustainable transportation, though. If these shifts towards carsharing and bikesharing are just the effect of economic hardship, you should expect to see a commensurate shift back to individual car ownership as the economy improves. If there really is some cultural shift that is finally fighting back against the identity between car ownership and rugged American individualism, then these programs might just last through the next business cycle. I’m sure that Zipcar is trying to figure out precisely what’s going on and, more importantly, how to capture the economic effects of the recession as permanent cultural shifts. Any sort of projection about the future of transportation needs to be able to separate out the income effect from changes in preferences. Unfortunately, the Post is unhelpfully collapsing those two into each other.

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