Money may be taking the joy out of the ride.
Money may be taking the joy out of the ride.
It seems like ridesharing is all the rage right now. Articles in Time and Forbes have celebrated its spread, and the adoption of new rules to encourage ridesharing are being considered in cities from Seattle, to Austin, to Washington DC. Yet just last week, ridesharing service RideJoy announced that it was throwing in the towel, prompting one observer to ponder why ridesharing is taking off in Europe, but failing to gain traction in the US.
Sound like a contradiction? It's not, really. The truth is, there are two completely different phenomena going by the same name: "ridesharing." And one of them is cannibalizing the other.
Traditionally, ridesharing has meant just that -- two or more people, who were going the same way anyway, sharing a ride to get there. Drivers might sometimes receive some slight economic payback -- money chipped in toward gas, or a break on bridge toll. But the primary reason for engaging in ridesharing has long been what social psychologists call intrinsic reward -- that is, people share rides because sharing rides is fun and interesting, and because the more rides people share, the fewer cars are on the street, leading to less pollution and a better, healthier planet for all of us.
RideJoy was a web-enabled service for just this sort of ridesharing. Several successful ridesharing services have emerged in Europe, including Blablacar and Carma. However, in the US, most of the companies calling themselves "ridesharing" have pursued another, very different model. Companies like Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber depend on drivers who are paid for their rides -- much like taxicab drivers -- with the companies taking a percentage of each fare -- much like taxicab companies. Experience has shown that this for-profit version of ridesharing is effective at attracting drivers -- and perhaps even more importantly, investors. But there is a problem: payment for services constitutes an extrinsic reward which competes with, and can even erode, intrinsic motivation. Psychologists call this the overjustification effect, and it could be the nemesis of ridesharing.
Numerous studies have pointed to the erosive effect of extrinsic rewards. For example, children who enjoyed drawing were offered a reward for drawing; once the reward was no longer offered, they had less interest in drawing than they had had before the reward. Another study found that monetary payment reduced the number of voluntary female blood donors, because the extrinsic reward "crowded out" the intrinsic motivations for donating blood.
Education writer Alfie Kohn puts the problem this way:
...the more you use rewards to "motivate" people, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the rewards. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation not only are different, in other words -- they generally are reciprocally related: as extrinsic goes up, intrinsic most often goes down. (Kohn, Challenging Behaviorist Dogma)
How could this be affecting ridesharing? The extrinsic motivation of payment is likely to erode the intrinsic motivation of ridesharing for its own sake. On the one hand, this could attract willing drivers away from traditional ridesharing services like RideJoy, to paying services like Lyft or Uber. But even more seriously, as the blood donation example shows, the "crowding out" effect payment can transform the image and meaning of ridesharing itself. Payment transforms a fun activity done on its own merit into a job done for pay. This could actually decrease the number of drivers willing to rideshare .
And just maybe, this helps explain the differing fortunes of ridesharing in the US and Europe. It's not that Americans don't like sharing rides, or don't care about the environment. It's that we let the profit motive get in the way of more substantial motivation, confusing the bloodless cost-benefit fantasies of economists with real human psychology.
To save real ridesharing, one of the first things we should do is insist on a clear distinction between ridesharing and for-profit services like taxis.. This will be a challenge, given that the confusion of these new taxi-like services with actual ridesharing has a new promotor in Peers, a faux-gressive, astroturfing public relations group whose powerful members are more like the "peers" of the British House of Lords, than a band of your and my equals. Propagandists of this sort will need to be resisted if we are to reclaim the meaning of "ridesharing" as a concept (saving the "sharing economy" concept in general, unfortunately, may already be a lost cause).
Will we be able to stop paid "ridesharing" from killing off the real ridesharing movement? For RideJoy, it's already too late.
Anthony Kalamar is an independent scholar and writer on environmental and technology issues.