Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

I’m standing on Butternut Street NW in a cocktail dress and heels, waving a small plastic card frantically in front of the windshield of the shared car I’ve reserved.

Swipe, swipe, swipe. Nothing. No orange glow lights up the little computer screen. No welcome message. Nada. My husband and I are locked out of our Car2Go. And every swipe brings us closer to that moment when we’ll no longer be able to scamper up the church steps and slide into a back pew before the bride starts down the aisle.

We end up catching the 52 bus from the Takoma Metro station. It’s a Saturday afternoon last spring, and in our formal wear, we feel a bit overdressed. When you live as far uptown as we do, though, Saturday afternoon transportation options are limited: Forget about hailing a cab.

Since we ditched our car about two years ago, we’ve come to rely on car and bike shares to get around whenever we’re not riding the Metro. But “wheels when you want ’em,” the Zipcar motto, isn’t always the way it goes. Between Car2Go’s Internet connection woes and Zipcar’s setup, which forces users to pay for hours at a time and return cars to where they got them, car sharing has its drawbacks. Meanwhile, Capital Bikeshare still struggles to match supply to demand: As anyone who uses the sturdy red two-wheelers knows, too often there isn’t a bike or a dock available when you need one.

Nevertheless, I’ve stuck with it, jumping into what marketers and experts are calling the “sharing economy.” And so has much of the rest of the country, according to pollsters and pundits, who say (at the risk of sounding hyperbolic) that we’re in the middle of the biggest shift in the way we live since the Industrial Revolution. According to a 2012 survey, six in every 10 Americans like the idea of sharing; 71 percent of the U.S. residents surveyed say they’ve used one of these collaborative services before and would do it again. In the District, where more than a third of all households don’t have an automobile, the growing proliferation of car shares is just one indication. (Besides the Zipcars and Cars-2-Go in my neighborhood, Hertz’s “On Demand” service added an outpost a few blocks away about a month ago.) Capital Bikeshare has seen its usage more than double since it opened in September 2010. Today the system has 22,146 “active members” with one-month or annual memberships, and has tallied another quarter million one-day and three-day “casual” memberships in the last two years. That’s between, 20,000 and 60,000 trips per week depending on the season, according to Capital Bikeshare.

This burgeoning new world order is also a jumble of contradictions: Sharing enthusiasts see a future with less pollution, inefficiency, and injustice—not to mention fewer cars. But sharing services aren’t always green (you can, after all, share a private jet). They seem more likely—not less—to accentuate class differences and perpetuate the same bad behavior on commercial, labor, and environmental fronts that everything that came before them did. And while sharing depends on high-tech social media and smartphone apps, in many ways the collaborative world harkens back to the past: to barter systems; the hyper-localism of preautomobile societies; and the almost small-town importance of reputation, which will increasingly follow us around as “data exhaust” that could replace the credit rating. Still, the changes afoot are propelled by decidedly 21st century realities: population growth, booming cities, rising costs, and shrinking personal space.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the sharing economy is only part economy and part something akin to a social movement. These “collaborative consumption” enterprises range from big corporate-backed businesses to not-for-profit endeavors like Knowledge Commons DC’s classes or the “adult recess” events created by Spacious, one of a growing number of D.C. firms that use the Web to draw audiences for face-to-face events.

The aim, in theory at least, is to restore a consensus about the importance of place and a lost sense of in-it-togetherness. The idea being: Love thy neighbor—and share with her.

Not that everyone is feeling quite that neighborly; one of the most daunting hurdles facing the new sharing revolutionaries is trust. Just as some of us don’t buy the notion that corporations have become good citizens, lots of people tell surveyors they’re not sure they can trust other people in these networks. A big obstacle to establishing a robust group of, say, tool sharers, is people’s fear that their stuff may get lost or broken.

Which means, when you add all that up, there could be a wide gulf between the utopian hopes of sharing’s boosters and the reality confronting users. Even users who aren’t running late to a wedding.

Car sharing has been called “the gateway drug” of the collaborative economy. The clearest sign we’re hooked: Avis’s recent acquisition of Zipcar. Steve Case, the AOL co-founder and Zipcar’s largest shareholder through his Revolution venture capital fund, says in an email that the $500 million acquisition “shows that the sharing economy is coming of age, and that car sharing in particular is becoming more of a mainstream phenomenon.”

Sharing took off with cars because they’re so expensive and comparably easy to go without, especially in the District and other cities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, just 63.9 percent of D.C. households have vehicles, compared to more than 90 percent nationally. In New York City, less than half of all households own vehicles, while in Boston, Baltimore, and Seattle, three cities about the same size as the District, vehicle-ownership rates are 63.9 percent, 70.4 percent, and 84.4 percent, respectively. The U.S. car sharing industry, worth $400 million today, could be as big as $10 billion in a few years, according to Avis.

But it’s just a portion of a billion dollar sharing economy (exact figures are hard to come by) that didn’t even exist a decade ago. The number of collaborative-style startups and apps that have proliferated lately is mindboggling. In D.C., at least four companies operate car shares: Zipcar, Car2Go, Hertz, and RelayRides. The latter makes its money helping people with cars rent them to people without, unlike the other three, which field their own fleets (Daimler AG, which makes the SmartCars used by Car2Go, also owns it).

Fashionistas like Lesley Jones, a 31-year-old event planner who lives in Columbia Heights, are already tuned into dress rental outfits like the New York-based Rent the Runway. For this year’s presidential inaugural, Jones says she spent the weekend in a black, sequined Badgley Mischka gown and matching earrings, plus a backup dress at home, for less than $200, about a third of what it would have cost to buy the dress.

Task Rabbit helps people with time on their hands exchange it for money from people needing errands run. You can get your home cooking fix from EatFeastly, a D.C. startup that’s expanding to other cities. My neighbor and I share a white plastic pail picked up weekly by District-based Compost Cab that lets Washington-area residents pool kitchen scraps.

Airbnb, the San Francisco-based company started in 2007 that helps users rent out space in their homes, is perhaps the sharing world’s biggest enterprise, with more than 300,000 listings in more than 33,000 cities, including nearly 2,200 in the District—though it’s technically illegal here.

“It’s not a trend. It’s a shift in the way our society is moving,” says Stacey Price, executive director of Think Local First D.C., which supports local businesses and helps D.C. startups connect with seasoned entrepreneurs. “We’ve shifted to be more thoughtful. We have fewer interactions [with other people], so we want them to count; we have less money, so we’ve become more thoughtful about what we buy.” 

That’s what many sharing businesses have in common: They’re letting people use things like cars or expensive dresses that they once would have had to buy to have regular access to—but without needing to shell out money for them only to watch them sit untouched most of the time. Not coincidentally, they also depend on shiny gadgets, which are starting to become as important to people’s self-identification as consumers as cars used to be.

“What we’re seeing is a shift in the products that are important to identity—our identity markers,” says Cait Poynor Lumberton, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “People will continue to be bothered by owning something that they hardly ever use. Maybe they’ll be less willing to buy things they won’t use much.”

That’s why Ronesha Dennis joined Car2Go shortly after the company opened in D.C. last year.

“I have thought about buying a car several times, but at this point in time, although affordable, it’s not financially responsible,” she says. “I’d have to pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking for a vehicle that would likely spend most of its time in the lot of my building.”

Dennis, 23, works in Dupont Circle and lives just over the District line in Temple Hills, Md. She uses the little white and blue Smartcars a few times a month, usually to get home after Metro closes for the night. A taxi could cost twice as much, and besides, drivers often won’t take her. “I love being able to open up the app and be told this car is 1,000 feet away from you,” she says. “I love to RSVP for a car. It has saved me so many times.”

Internet researcher and venture capitalist Mary Meeker has dubbed Dennis’ age group “the assets-light generation,” who are rethinking concepts of space, time, and money. They’re less inclined to accumulate stuff and would rather pay as they go, whether it’s renting a car or a movie on Netflix. The appeal isn’t limited to the 20-something demographic: A February 2012 survey published by the ad agency Campbell Mithun reported that people in their 30s and 40s and even some baby boomers say they’re interested in sharing.

There’s a reason the sharing economy has started to boom now, as young professionals flock back into cities like D.C.: It only really thrives in densely populated urban neighborhoods, where there’s a critical mass of potential users around. Take Shaw: Ayeh Bandeh-Ahmadi has used Airbnb as a guest when she’s traveled to Los Angeles, Paris, and New York and hosted Airbnb guests and held a couple of eatFeastly parties at her condo near the convention center.

A D.C. resident since 2002, Bandeh-Ahmadi says such opportunities to share are “the kinds of things that make me excited about living in D.C. right now.”

“I feel like there’s never been a better time to be in D.C. because of all the really authentic ways to connect with people,” she says. “Those conversations are what make me really feel great about our city. Twitter and Facebook have had an impact, but it’s the human interaction that’s important.”

The extra income she’s made on Airbnb financed months in New York last year on an internship with crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter (which inhabits another corner of the collaborative economy). Short-term Airbnb rentals worked out better than a traditional sublet, making it easy to come back to D.C. periodically to meet with advisors on the Ph.D. in economics she earned in December from the University of Maryland.

More than the money though, she says she appreciates the new friends she’s made, such as Jessica O’Neal, a chef from South Carolina who moved to D.C. about 18 months ago to be closer to her fiancé.

O’Neal, who specializes in Southern cuisine, hooked up with eatFeastly to meet new people and figure out the District’s dining scene. The communal dinners don’t net her much cash; she and a friend split the $120 profit from the last 12-person dinner that she cooked for. But the connections allowed her to quit her catering job last May and pursue her own cooking fulltime.

She now caters, offers personal chef services, and gives at-home cooking classes. She also joined the food incubator Union Kitchen, where she’s getting help applying for a business license and navigating D.C.’s regulatory process to turn her recipe for pimento cheese into a packaged product under her JLOkitchens brand.

“There is no way I could get a $250,000 loan to open a commercial kitchen,” nor would she want to, she says. “It takes you away from the cooking. I love to cook. I’m not interested in being a high-powered business person.”

Through D.C.’s constellation of collaborations, O’Neal also met Price and Cary Umhau, the co-founder of event-planning firm Spacious. They hung out, organized a eatFeastly dinner together, and Umhau hired O’Neal to cook for her mother’s 75th birthday party at Umhau’s Chevy Chase home last year.

But much about this new world of social commerce is disquieting government officials and regulators. In New York, state lawmakers drafted legislation reigning in short-term rentals, after Airbnb’s co-founder bragged that the company had listings on just about every New York City block.

In D.C., it’s still against the law to rent your space out on Airbnb, run a homestyle trattoria out of your kitchen on eatFeastly, or sell artisan cheese at a Grey Market underground food fair. Helder Gil, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, says Airbnb and eatFeastly hosts could be slapped with $2,000 fines for operating unlicensed businesses and might be breaking other D.C. laws and regulations, as well.

Not that there’s been much of a crackdown here; Gil was unaware of any prosecutions, and city policy, in any event, is to offer scofflaws a chance to come into compliance before resorting to fines. The District has just launched a task force to review business regulations, which may take up questions of the sharing economy, Gil says.

Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who traces the rise of the sharing economy from the early days of music and file sharing in the 1990s, says it’s time for regulators to adapt: “Historically, when technology makes things more efficient, it always leads in the short term to disruptions and [regulatory] trouble.”

He thinks local governments should downsize their focus on standards and quality, since those are increasingly scrutinized by users themselves through online reviews and commentary. But he says authorities should beef up enforcement action against criminal activity “or other shenanigans” that victimize users and could hurt sharing’s appeal.

It’s one thing to use a car for a few hours instead of owning one, or rent movies instead of buying them. But is this really a wholesale revolution in the global economy?

Experts throw around words like “efficiency” and talk about a growing intolerance for “waste”—either of time, space or money—while the sharers themselves emote about being more generous, living more sustainably, and being part of a movement. People have lost faith in longstanding touchstones—not just cars, but the business world, too. Anger at the banking industry is helping to fuel the rise of “peer-to-peer” lending apps. The mortgage crisis has devalued the appeal of homeownership by making it painfully apparent that many people didn’t really own their homes; the banks did.

Lisa Gansky, a dot-com impresario who made millions selling startups to AOL and Kodak before penning the bestseller The Mesh, runs a website,, with a staggering array of sharing examples and resources.

“The neighborhood is the next big social platform,” Gansky says. That sort of jargon might sound a little overblown, but she can pull off, in all seriousness, turns of phrase like: “the digitizing of the physical,” by which she means we’re starting to pay more attention to—and monetize—smaller and smaller increments of our time, space, and possessions. Think of these units like bytes or pixels. After half an hour on the phone with Gansky, I can almost see them migrating off the computer screen to twinkle in the sunlight—sort of like the movie Tron, only in reverse. She starts to lose me, though, when she launches into a spiel about the new generation of urban planning apps she’s sure will allow us all to “customize the place where we live” in ways “that work for us.”

Here in D.C., though, we’ve lived through too many pay-to-play scandals to know just how ineffectual the voice of the people can be when up against deep-pocketed business interests or the fraternity brothers of a sitting mayor. There may not be enough flashy online apps in the world to level that playing field. Anyway, sharing isn’t likely to do away with inequity. In fact, paying for services favors the rich, who can afford to pay more and have better access to the technology it’s all built on; Zipcar already has a premium service.

Not that the economy classes are being neglected entirely. Retailers and consumer goods makers are pretty desperate to be our friends so they can pitch us increasingly fine-tuned advertising. This stuff is now so cheap that even small businesses can partake. But is the entire concept of friend in danger of being downgraded to its transactional value? You may enjoy an occasional newsletter from your favorite bookstore, but big corporations are the ones investing heavily in mining your data. Hawking loyalty programs and personalized reward systems, they’re looking for the moment when each of us willingly becomes “a more permissive consumer,” according to a December article in the Mondaq Business Briefing. Now that it’s booming, big businesses want to recruit sharing customers, who tend to be “brand evangelists,” showering favored products with the kind of friend-to-friend endorsements that money can’t buy

Which means the sharing economy could go the route of, say, the organic food industry, which saw dramatic growth during the final decades of the last century. Scrappy organic companies successfully wooed consumers by playing up their status as “little” and “trusted.” A wave of corporate mergers ensued—as did a massive rush of lobbying that watered down organic standards. The new corporate subsideries kept the trusted brandnames and all-natural marketing pitches.

But lots of these businesses are bound to fail before they can do anything nefarious: For example, Cherry, a West Coast carwash service that used a mobile app to connect with consumers, shut down Dec. 23, shortly after it was featured in Meeker’s Internet trends report.

And while Gansky amasses her next fortune by singing sharing’s praises, and other pundits envision a coming renaissance of “the creative classes,” the sharing economy doesn’t do much to help service-sector workers who find themselves at the mercy of those fluent in social media and pushed out of their increasingly “collaborative” neighborhoods by the same “young upwardly mobile professionals” who have been gentrifying cities for decades. There’s a limit, after all, to how much even the most well-intentioned world-changing idea can actually change the world.

I came to Washington in 2006 to become a media trainer at a big environmental group. Within six months, my department was reorganized, and I was out of a job. I spent the next two years researching and writing a book that critiqued the role corporate funding plays in shaping the agendas of large environmental groups like the one where I worked, a process that required learning a disconcerting amount about the beleaguered state of the environment.

Sure, I already considered myself environmentally conscious, at least as much as the next professional type. And like most people who recycle, shut off the lights when they leave a room, and try not to litter, I had only the vaguest notion about the rising health toll from pollution, or the fact the world has already used up so many fossil fuels that we’re now faced with “peak oil” and no serious back-up energy plan in place. I learned that conventional fuel supplies are only likely to stick around long enough to lock us into an inhospitable amount of global warming.

Of course, a grown adult with years of conspicuous consumption under her belt can coast along for years on the stuff she’s already accumulated. Then, about two years ago, my 1993 Toyota was reaching the end of its life. Buying a new one—even a hybrid or electric car—held little appeal, given my newfound understanding of what it takes to build a car: the ecosystems damaged while mining the minerals and smelting them into steel, the gas and oil changes required to run it, and the environmental impact of disposing of it later.

I really didn’t use it that much, anyway. (According to Gansky, the average person uses their car only 8 percent of the time, and I think I probably used mine even less.) I already had a Zipcar membership and Capitol Bikeshare had just launched. I donated my clunker to charity and signed up for Capitol Bikeshare months before it opened. And my husband later bought me a used bike at a moving sale.

It’s not that I’m under the impression that I’m saving the planet by riding a bike, sharing a car, and purchasing a thrift shop wardrobe. But as world leaders continue to dither, my small effort to “be the change I want to see in the world” makes me feel a little better.

And it has turned out surprisingly well. I dress better now thanks to the castoffs of Washington’s power women, who like designer labels and wear them most gently. Riding a bike is such a happier experience than driving a car ever was. In the city, it beats anything else, especially in the summer when you can make your own breeze even during the most cloying Washington heat wave. Gansky says she’d never talked to anyone who didn’t feel “liberated” by dumping their car, but I know at least one person who wasn’t thrilled: my husband Alberto, though he has since come around. He still dwells on all the trips we’re supposedly missing out on; these days, though, he agrees that car ownership is more of a hassle than a necessity.

But I don’t want to sugarcoat it: Sharing isn’t perfect. Grocery shopping on a bike took some getting used to. Getting around takes more time, and you’ve got to be able to change your plans in mid-stride, often literally. Since I started sharing, I’ve become a master of the multimodal. No Zipcar available? Car2Go already gone? Hop online and check Metro’s “Next Train” service. If the nearest Bikeshare dock is 20 blocks downtown, take the bus. If taking the bus, do I hoist my own bike on the bus rack, or gamble on whether there’ll be a bike parked at the Petworth dock? No place to park the Bikeshare when you finally arrive in Georgetown? Peddle on! Then hoof it back double-time because now you’re late.

That kind of logistical challenge may be the biggest obstacle to the growth of sharing services. “A lot of these problems are plain-old traditional market economy problems,” like how to match supply to demand, Pitt’s Lambertson says. If companies can’t work out the glitches—like Car2Go’s Internet connection problems and Bikeshare’s apparent inability to expand its bikes and docks fast enough to meet demand—they could kill sharing: “If you don’t give consumers what they want, when they want it, they are going to reject it.”

Price, the D.C. First director, studied “social capital” in graduate school more than a dozen years ago, when everybody was blaming computers and the Internet for prompting us to tune out our local communities and sever ties with the people around us in favor of the online world. The previous shift toward the lonely isolation of the computer screen, she thinks, is what set in motion the shift we’re seeing today. And she finds it ironic that today’s online technology is feeding a patently human “craving” for community.

“Will society shift again?” she asks. “Absolutely.”

What the next shift will bring, though, is anybody’s guess. So for now, I’m holding on to my membership cards and my bike helmet.

As for getting to the church on time last spring? We were late. But the bride was still beautiful, the groom proud. And I cried a little just to be witness to so much happiness.