The sharing economy spells good news for students

A standard night out in San Francisco typically begins with a ride in a stranger’s car. Lyft and Uber, two of the most popular ridesharing apps, turn the standard drudgery of getting to the bar into a fun part of the night. I had a particularly enjoyable experience last weekend when I was matched with “Pirate Bootie,” a themed Lyft driver who was so awesome he inspired me to write this column (you can look him up on Twitter).

Lyft and Uber are both part of what has been termed the “sharing economy”: a collection of networks that enable consumers to get what they want from each other instead of going to corporations. Sharing economy companies such as Airbnb allow providers to easily and cheaply offer their goods or services to an existing network of people. Review systems that rate both the provider and the consumer ensure safety, and the ubiquity of smartphones means that users can access these services anywhere.

Most people are familiar with Airbnb and Uber (if you’re not, go check them out), but where the sharing economy gets interesting is with its plethora of applications. You can sell clothes you don’t wear any more on Poshmark; get paid to dog-sit with DogVacay; rent, lend, or borrow household items on Neighborgoods; outsource errands and chores you don’t want to do with TaskRabbit; and even share a homemade meal on Feastly. All of these services provide ways for users to make a little extra cash on the side, and in some cases even develop into full-time jobs.

At this point you may be thinking. “hold on, I’ve got an awesome style sense and a bunch of clothes I don’t wear any more,” or “I’m a killer cook but can’t find enough people to eat my food.” The first sharing economy companies were founded during the financial crisis to offer an alternative income source and alleviate financial strain. Sound familiar? Students everywhere could be (and in some cases are) using the sharing economy to alleviate some of the financial strain that comes with being in university.

Both Lyft and Uber have noticed this and run campaigns targeting student drivers (unfortunately, exclusively in the US at this point). On top of ultra-flexible hours and decent pay, ridesharing in university towns helps to reduce drunk driving, saves passengers money, and offers students, who don’t own a car, a much needed convenience.

Applications of the sharing economy for students don’t stop there. You could rent a car through RelayRides to go grocery shopping, lend those obscure cooking tools your mom got you in first year to people who know how to use them, or help with the move-ins at the beginning the term to fund your frosh/frost week. The list of practical applications for students is almost limitless; but for me, the best part is that the sharing economy offers a feasible and flexible alternative to the low paying jobs that university students are often subjected to during school terms.

Despite the attractiveness of the industry, there are a number of issues with the sharing economy that have yet to be resolved. Last week, Uber faced the first ever sharing economy strike when drivers across the US and in London turned off their app in protest of unfair driver rules and a dwindling share of the revenue from their rides. After asking Airbnb to hand over a selection of host’s personal data, New York State’s attorney general recently stated that three quarters of the Airbnb rentals in the state appear to be illegal (by state law).

These are serious problems with the industry and the disruption it is causing. Sharing economy workers aren’t employees, so they lose benefits such as sick and travel days, retirement plans, and health insurance. Organizations in disrupted industries such as hotel and taxi companies are pouring a huge amount of resources into fighting the growth of their sharing economy counterparts and represent a powerful opposition. These peer-to-peer services are also largely unregulated and untaxed, creating a myriad of problems for governments and regulatory bodies.

There is another practical problem with the sharing economy in Canadian university towns: in order for the model to work, it needs scale. If I’m going to lend my goods or offer my services regularly and be successful doing it, I need a large enough group of interested people, and right now that group is simply not there. Given the current explosive growth of the industry, however, it seems likely that in the next few years, the sharing economy will begin to make the kind of impact on Canada that it already has on the US. With scale, the sharing economy could dramatically affect student communities across the country, making it easier and more fun to handle being broke and in college.