Superheroes in the Snowpocalypse

Yesterday Uber made me feel like a superhero.

It was about 10 degrees in Boston, and I was on the T on my way into Cambridge.  And as we pulled in to Kenmore station the conductor notified us that all Green Line trains would be going out of service.  So my train — and every train before us and after us — dumped all of its passengers out into the freezing cold to find another way to get wherever they were going.

There were a few shuttle buses, but they barely made a dent in moving the crowd.  Every single taxi was full.  After a few minutes, there were easily over a thousand people huddling outside in the freezing cold trying to figure out what to do.

I reached into my pocked and tried Hailo, but all taxis in the area were booked.  Uber gave the same response — but on my second try I was able to snag an Uber car.  So: five minutes later, I got a phone call and a black Lincoln pulled up next to me. I offered to share it w/ the group of people directly next to me, but no one was going my way.  So I hopped in and was whisked away from an overcrowded frozen nightmare in a warm, comfortable car.

Totally made me feel like a superhero.   

But not necessarily in a “save the world” way — more of a “wow I have a superpower” way.

When I got to the Media Lab and told the story to Nate his (correct) reaction was: “well, a black car swooping in to rescue a white man is kind of the definition of privilege.  Wouldn’t it be more amazing if there were a way for everyone to take advantage of the network of transportation options swirling around?”  

Of course this is correct — while I was able to snag a ride out of the ether, there was still a huge market mismatch: thousands of people standing around looking for transportation, and hundreds of cars driving by with empty seats.  Yet no way to connect them.

Ride sharing is not a new idea — there is no shortage of startups working on the idea — SideCar & Lyft for car rides, Weeelz for taxi rides, etc. — but it is something that is culturally and technically difficult to implement.  Lyft got its start (I think) on college campuses, where sharing rides to events is a much more natural phenomenon.   

In times of crisis we are more likely to stray from our normal behavior and try new things.  NYC famously mandated taxi sharing for all trips into Manhattan during the 2003 blackout and again after Superstorm Sandy.  Nate and I got to discussing if there wasn’t an opportunity to use yesterday’s class of crisis — a medium-sized but somewhat predictable one — as another “thin edge of the wedge” to make ride-sharing more of a mainstream networked activity.

For instance, I’d gladly sign up to be part of the “boston transportation crisis network” — as a driver or a passenger, and basically pre-volunteer to give rides to people when this kind of thing happens again.  I would like to know the number of times per year when the green line breaks down at Kenmore on very cold days — I bet it’s a lot.  So there would be a decent chance of predicting it and then giving folks in the network a little bit of advanced warning.

If you think about it, weird anomaly events are perfect for launching new, behavior-changing activities.  It was during the inauguration of 2009 that Airbnb got its start — by giving people a chance to “crash the inauguration” by participating in peer-to-peer apartment renting.  At the time, it was *way* outside the mainstream to do something like that.  But the craziness of the event made it fine, and now it’s a regular thing to do all over the world and Airbnb is a billion dollar business.

My other favorite behavior-changing anomaly is snow.  My favorite place in the world is NYC in a snowstorm.  Everything changes.  Instead of walking on the sidewalk and keeping to yourself, you walk in the middle of the street and talk to your neighbors as well as strangers.  During the Washington DC Snowpocalype of 2010, there was a lot of peer-to-peer shoveling happening.

I wasn’t in NYC after Sandy, but I have to assume that there were similar kinds of networked behavior that were positive but would have been hard to imagine under normal circumstances.

Maybe the idea is that people become more open to networked / peer-to-peer solutions when our infrastructure fails us — because they have to be.

If you think about it that way — it’s a pretty profound idea.  Not to be pessimistic, but in our current environment, many of our institutions are failing.  And we will have to become comfortable with other ways of solving our big problems.  Health, education, energy, transportation, etc.

So maybe there’s a launch lesson in here for folks building peer network businesses that rely on cultural change that’s difficult to achieve under normal circumstances.  Think about the traditional infrastructure you’re replacing — and think about the moments or events when they are most apt to fail, giving people the most natural incentive to change their behavior in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.   

And give people a chance to become superheroes.

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Nick Grossman

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