At TED, Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick called parking lots a terrible waste of space and car ownership an equally wasteful practice--most of the time our vehicles are sitting somewhere parked, not actually being used. 

Now Uber is using its considerable political influence to test its vision of a no-car-ownership environment. It is in Altamonte Springs, Florida.

In Altamonte Springs, a small city of 42,000 in Central Florida, City Manager Frank Martz isn't just welcoming the app. Along with Mayor Patricia Bates, he's helping spearhead a new initiative that will pay the ride-sharing behemoth up to $500,000 over the next year as part of a first-in-the-nation pilot program. And the system set up to pay for rides--a unique municipal subsidy that covers 20% of any ride that begins and ends in the city, 25% if it begins or ends at the local light rail station--has already gotten others cities in the surrounding Seminole County interested in replicating it, even though it just started running yesterday. 

The trial represents at least three significant shifts in the sharing economy paradigm.  

First, it is the conscious privatization of public service. Uber, AirBnB and other platforms have been parallel to government-backed provisions, but they've never been addressed as a replacement to failing public service. As Altamonte Springs City Manager Marts told Curbed, "Seemed to us, if you can order a pizza using your cell phone, or transfer funds with [your] cell phone, you should be able to order a transit trip. We were tired of waiting for Central Florida to move on transit, so we did."

Second, it is a big step towards the sharing-first utopia Kalanick fawned over in his TED talk. To paraphrase the talk, he envisions suburbanites carpooling through Uber - and the driver being one of your neighbors. The goal is to have less cars on the road or, at the very least, less ownership of vehicles.

Finally, if Altamonte Springs is considered a success, then it could bring a landmark shift in social engineering. Current cities could step up and use Uber to handle their transit gaps, if not all their mass transit, while new or renewed cities could lean on the sharing economy from the ground up. It is comparable a decade ago when emerging African cities skipped landlines and leapfrogged straight into 3G networks. In this case, though, we'd be beholden not just to a specific technology, but to a proprietary IP, not a specific technology, and the impact would be incredible to both the valuation of the $65 billion company and our increasing dependence on corporations. 

Uber is still just a startup and, if it clears this next milestone, it might become too big to fail--for all of us.

Published on: Mar 28, 2016
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