To Have and Have Not: Exploring Grammars of Sharing in the Context of Pooled Mobility

As EPIC 2017 in Montreal is picking up steam, here are a few images and  points from our presentation on the future of Pooled Mobility. This is an extremely condensed and stripped down version of the paper I wrote at the back of a three months’ project that took us to the long and congested roads of Sao Paulo, Brazil and Ahmedabad, India (along with some very exciting London suburbs).

To find out more about what actually happens when ‘sharing’ meets ‘economy’ and people find themselves next to a stranger at the back of a car, see the full paper (quite long, but hopefully an interesting read!)

We went to London, Ahmedabad, and Sao Paulo, and looked at how people move around these cities. Comparably vast and congested, they all have unique mobility landscapes. We tried to understand where pooled mobility actually fits in these existent landscapes.

Firstly, we looked at well-established practices of informal ride-sharing: school runs, work lifts, long distance ride sharing. Secondly, we dived into the world of emerging, app-based pooling services typically used for shorter inner-city rides (I refer to these as formal pooling).

Where formal pooling fits in, depends to a huge extent on existent transportation networks and mobility options. There are all sorts of “hard” factors: the state of existing mobility infrastructure, available public transportation services, citizens’ disposable income, various sets of rules and regulations that can affect formal pooling services.

As we study socio-cultural drivers and barriers to pooling, it is important to remember these ‘hard’ factors and the fact that formal pooling is not always a positive choice, but can simply be brought about by the lack of alternatives.

However, one does not need ethnographers to find out about infrastructural challenges. Where our method and expertise were really needed, is in identifying the socio-cultural tensions that commuters around the world face when making their choice: to pool or not to pool.

Firstly, the positioning of formal pooling gets caught between private and public transportation modalities.

Formal pooling is a liminal activity; it sits betwixt and between the established categories and behaviours – it’s not mass transit and yet it’s not taxi or private car. As a result, it can be hard to know for certain which “rules of the road” apply, or who is in charge.

Formal pooling may be viewed as an upgraded bus (with the public elements prevailing) or a downgraded taxi (with privacy and extra comfort still being key). The way people conceive of public and private spaces is therefore essential for how attitudes to formal pooling develop.

In Sao Paulo, one of the key differences between public and private transport, is that only the latter is safe. Flavia spends over an hour a day in crowded bus, and she can’t even have her phone out. She can’t text, she can’t play CandyCrush. She can’t afford taxis – but she can afford UberPool. Pools are shared, but they are also small, and there is a driver monitoring the situation. This puts pooling closer to the private end of the spectrum.

In Ahmedabad, the concerns are different, but similarly reflect on the public and private dichotomy. People want to maintain socio-cultural distance. In a private space of a personal vehicle they can. On public transport, they can’t. In pooling, they can’t either – so it brings it closer to public. Algorithms aggregating passengers are blind to this kind of socio-cultural sensitivities.

In London, formal pooling is a practice that doesn’t have clear rules of engagement. There is a considerable amount of uncertainty and doubt with regards to social interaction. On public transport, one does not talk to people. In a private vehicle, that’s the polite thing to do. Because it is unclear where formal pooling sits, people lack a common language.  Who takes control over the route? What is the role of the driver? Do Do I have to talk? Can I be on my phone? This uncertainty can be a deal breaker for many people when it comes to formal pooling.

The status assigned to the public and private transportation had an important role to play in both India and Brazil. While Londoners prioritise efficiency above all and attach little symbolic value to the transport they use (“as long as it gets me there on time”), Paulistanos to some extent and Ahmedabadis to a huge extent link transport choices to socio-economic standing. The hierarchy of transportation modes matters, for how you travel says something about who you are. Public transport sits at the very bottom, and private vehicles, at the top of the mobility ladder.

The second tension defining people’s attitude to formal pooling, was that between the teleological and the experiential aspects of the journey: it is all about prioritising and compromising, picking and choosing between the rational considerations such as cost, efficiency, speed, convenience, and a wide range of emotional, cultural, aesthetic and sensory factors that often go against the grain of rational choices.

Millions of commuters around the world are constantly negotiating which matters most: the teleological “destination” or the experiential “journey”. Travel – pooled or otherwise – is rarely just about getting from A to B: how one gets there, in what company, temperature, environment, ambience – plays a significant role in the decision-making process.

In hot climates, like in India, sensory aspects of the journey often come down to protection from the heat and the rain. AC is king. It may be slower, but the shelter a car provides is worth it. In fact, the higher the congestion, the higher the tendency to opt for cars. And for those who can’t afford a car of their own, or even a private taxi, – pooling is your best bet.

On the journey home from work, Londoners like “zoning out”. Where formal pooling can create an environment that is conductive to this “down time”, it strikes the right cords; however, if instead it amounts to social awkwardness, the experience won’t be considered a positive one.

In São Paulo, the experiential aspect is particularly important for long distance journeys. People work hard to create an experience that’s personal and fun. We met with long distance commuters who travel into the city on the same chartered bus: they have regular breakfasts together; they are in a WhatsApp group sharing jokes. Pooling can thus be about sociability as much as it is about mobility; the journey can matter almost as much as the destination.

In certain contexts, however, the telos of the journey trump experiential considerations. It can be many things: getting somewhere, getting somewhere on time, getting somewhere cheaply – and people constantly weigh these priorities against the experiential factors.

In Ahmedabad, choices are often dictated by cost. People go with whatever is cheapest. It may be less or more comfortable, less or more fun. But the cost often trumps other considerations.

In London, punctuality is key: rush hour journeys, particularly in the morning, have to be efficient; one needs to be on time. Formal pooling involves multiple pick up and drop off points, and does not answer the need for punctuality.

The choice – or perhaps the continuous compromise – between teleological and experiential aspects of a journey, is never constant. It has to be negotiated depending on the context and the purpose of the journey, the age, the gender, the mood of the riders. Inner-city rush hour commute, long distance family weekend trips, Friday night late ride home – these journeys relate to different needs and show just how much the pendulum can swing between logistical considerations and emotional biases. For many of those who chose to pool, the fun, randomness and sociability of pooling is an appeal that often trumps the savings. For those who choose not to pool, the very same experiential aspects are often the reason behind their decision.

The last tension to consider is the dichotomy of freedom and ownership. Places where we find strong emotional investments in cars inevitably makes it harder for formal pooling to succeed. Despite being more comfortable and private than public transport alternatives, pooling with strangers doesn’t convey the much-desired socio-economic status and therefore has little cultural appeal for the aspiring middle classes, who still perceive ownership as the main means of capital accumulation.

Sharing a car can feel constraining – to those who strive towards individual ownership associated with elevated socio-economic status. But it can also feel liberating – to those who’ve had enough stress associated with owning a car, and would like a more affordable alternative to traditional taxis – with a bit of serendipity and sociality thrown into the bargain. Where the scale tips in any given context can come to define whether formal carpooling will catch or fail amongst different demographics.

In Brazil and India, car ownership has historically marked passage into adulthood. “You never forget your first car”, Jose, a 68-year-old accountant told us, with a sentimental, almost romantic longing in his voice.

In Ahmedabad, car ownership still significantly outweighs car usage, a result of the social image most citizens are eager to project: a car owner is an economically successful and independent individual.

Pooling takes away some of that independence. Control over the route is gone – and that can create real problems. In Brazil, pooling could mean a diversion into a favela. Both drivers and passengers complained about this kind of experiences. People may not want to own the car for the sake of the status, but they want the freedom to control their journey.

But there’s another side to the story: flexibility that comes with freedom from owning things is often far more practical. Car ownership is slowly but steadily losing its status as the ultimate expression of consumer designer in the context of mobility.

Many Londoners told us that car was a responsibility they didn’t want to bear. Congestion, parking costs, insurance, and the stress of driving makes owning a car undesirable.

Even in Ahmedabad, things are slowly changing. Modi, who bought her car 5 years ago, said she wouldn’t have done it, if Uber and Ola had existed.

In Sao Paulo, various people shared their stories of going from ‘being the cool kid with a car’ in college, to feeling happy and relieved when they sold their cars. Pooling turns out cheaper and less stressful.

Experiencing first-hand how people make these kind of choices, allowed us to understand what mobility is about in each city –  and how it is never just about mobility, but about so many other aspects of people’s lives. Arriving at this sort of insights would not have been possible without studying pooling through the eyes of drivers and passengers. We came along on people’s daily journeys; we immersed ourselves in the crowds and the queues, in the heat and the rain, in agonising traffic jams.

Ethnographic method allowed us to study mobility “in motion” – moving from person to person, from back seat to front seat, constantly shifting perspectives.

We saw what sharing a vehicle actually meant for commuters around the world. And for many of them, it meant having to learn a whole new social grammar. The success of formal pooling depends on getting that grammar right, on establishing culturally sensitive rules of engagement that reflect points of view of everyone involved. Ethnography can help public sector policy makers and private sector app developers get the language of car sharing right – and create better journeys for millions of commuters around the world.