Angkas and the business of sharing

If the objection to Angkas, the motorcycle ride-sharing transport network whose operation has recently been ordered suspended, is that the service it offers is not safe and secure, then we may as well ban riding tandem itself, and revoke the licenses that had been given to other ride-sharing networks.

Let’s unpack these objections carefully. First, do two-wheel motor vehicles pose more danger to their riders and passengers than four-wheel vehicles? The answer may seem obvious: Two wheels don’t have the same stability as four wheels, and, therefore, are more dangerous. But, as a motorcycle rider myself, I have to disagree. I think a lot depends on driver experience, and on the inculcation in the general public of a road-sharing ethic.

Angkas riders who are trained to carry passengers on a regular basis are surely no less experienced than the average biker in negotiating Metro Manila’s crowded streets. Indeed, I imagine they would be safer drivers than the typical solo biker who might occasionally take a friend or family member as passenger.

On the other hand, the objection regarding security (e.g., the danger of being held up or abducted) would equally apply to ride-sharing networks that use cars instead of motorbikes. In fact, such danger also lurks more or less equally in taxis, jeepneys, or buses. Come to think of it, it’s probably easier to jump off a motorcycle than from a taxi or a jeepney if one’s security is threatened.

Lastly, the law prohibiting the use of two-wheel vehicles as public utility vehicles may be there, but we have yet to hear of habal-habal drivers being arrested or prevented from plying their routes in remote upland areas where these modified motorbikes (that can take a dozen passengers) are the only means of public transport available. Here we go citing laws that were crafted long before the concept of a “sharing economy” entered the world of business. If we could reinterpret those laws to accommodate entities like Uber and Grab, which, strictly speaking, are not public transport companies that own and operate fleets of vehicles, why can’t the same adaptation be made to allow the local ride-sharing network Angkas to operate legally?

I believe that what’s important, in the final analysis, is that someone can be held accountable when accidents happen. If they have the same driver and passenger insurance provisions as those found in the other transport networks, there should be no further reason to stop Angkas riders from offering their services to the commuting public.

That said, I believe it’s important to revisit the original idea that inspired the formation of the successful pioneering entities in the sharing economy — like Airbnb and Uber. This may help guide our legislators in designing new laws that would prevent the idea of sharing from being totally engulfed by the commercial twin with which it made its appearance in the market economy.

The idea was simple enough. Some people have things that are in excess of what they personally need — living space, space in their vehicles, time on their hands, books and similar resources they have accumulated, etc. They may not be prepared to donate these to the government or any public entity, but, given the opportunity to do so, they might gladly share these with others, expecting almost nothing in return.

Thus, we have carpooling, where neighbors take turns bringing and picking up their children to and from school, instead of each parent waking up every day to bring their child to school, or paying for school bus service. Outside the campus of every big university in the United States and Europe, one would often find the most marvelous secondhand bookshops. Rather than gather dust and use up precious space in cramped student apartments, these books are sold to booksellers for a pittance, and are in turn sold back to other students for just a little more.  That, too, is a form of sharing, but with a small difference — someone, in this case, the secondhand bookseller, manages the exchange.

Airbnb and Uber take off basically from the same hybrid concept.  An entity is formed that manages the exchange of gifts among the participants and creates and maintains the technological infrastructure that makes this possible. For this, a small fee is collected.

Ideally, there’s supposed to be no exchange of money among the participants in the sharing network. The fee that is collected should be just enough to compensate the employees of the network and take care of incidental expenses. Homeowners who let travelers use a spare room are content to collect a small fee for laundry and electricity and be rewarded by the friendship and gratitude they reap as hosts. Travelers get to enjoy virtually free accommodation with a dose of personal hospitality, instead of staying in impersonal high-priced hotels.

Regretfully, the spirit of sharing has been overshadowed by profit-making. Venture capitalists saw the potential of monetizing the spirit of gift-giving, and invested heavily in the new companies. This drove the sharing economy to become as grasping in its quest for returns as the conventional capitalism it sought to replace. The participants themselves soon dropped the veneer of sharing. Individual car owners were soon replaced by greedy entrepreneurs that bought fleets of vehicles intended for use in the Uber or Grab networks.  And, big landlords owning several houses began to edge out small homeowners who had initially networked with Airbnb.

We must learn from these sad experiences as we search for new models of sharing in a world that seems bent on monetizing everything we value.