Democratic by Design

Gabriel Metcalf

256 pages, St. Martin's Press, 2015

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There are a lot of ways to change the world, and most of us are open to just about all of them: whatever works. But alongside the well-known strategies like community organizing or electoral politics, there has always been an important tradition of direct action that approaches social change through the concept of prototypes. This approach involves creating alternative institutions as living examples of a better society—projects that can then be seen, studied, improved on, and copied. If the alternative institutions are good enough at what they are trying to do, they will expand and multiply. Eventually, some of them will actually begin to out-compete the mainstream institutions that they stand alongside.

My book, Democratic by Design, is a history of alternative institutions in the American progressive tradition. It explores the idea through stories of social movements, both successful and un-successful, and tries to develop a full theory about institutional change that activists can draw on today. This essay comes from the first chapter of the book, which describes my experience in San Francisco co-founding City CarShare, an early initiative in the North American carsharing movement. —Gabriel Metcalf

Choosing an alternative institution

Perhaps the most important question facing activists interested in creating alternative institutions is which ones to build, or, more ambitiously, which ones to work on and in what order. So—why carsharing?

Transportation touches all of us, and it was increasingly clear that the available options were not serving us well. Cars are quite destructive to our social and natural systems, and we need desperately to reform the way they are used. Global warming, the extractive industries that are required to manufacture cars, oil wars—most people are familiar with the downsides of automobile overuse.

We believed that meaningful change would only come from changing our habits around car use. Electric vehicles would not be enough: EVs take up just as much space in cities, and the ecological impact of making the cars is just as big as the impact of driving them.1

Highway builders, sprawl home builders, military contractors, and oil companies collectively dominate the politics of the United States. The patterns of US settlement have been shaped by the automobile. Our federal government places a very high priority on subsidizing sprawl through highway construction and military adventures to secure the supply of oil. There are plenty of advanced industrial nations where these patterns are not nearly so prevalent. But we felt that in the United States, a project that questions car ownership would inherently be significant.

And we believed that carsharing could reach beyond radicals to engage regular people because it answered a clear need that people already felt. Cars are expensive. Studies showed that around 15 percent of household budgets in the United States were being devoted to transportation costs.2 Our models suggested that for people who drove less than a certain amount each year, carsharing could save them money. We imagined car sharing could work in densely populated cities that had good public transit—cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle, and Chicago.

Furthermore, an alternative transportation movement already existed. We knew there would be activists who were already organized, and already had constituencies, who would support this idea to further their own environmental and transportation agendas.

Finally, we thought that carsharing was a strategy that could be a bridge to a different transportation and land use system in the United States. If, rather than owning their own cars, people in cities were to only use cars when they needed them, the total number of cars kept in a city would be a fraction of the current number. That would mean all of the space devoted to storing cars would become surplus, available for other purposes. The areas that had been parking lots or parking garages would become apartments or work places or city parks. Buildings could be closer together without all the parking in between them, making it easier to walk. Cities would become more pedestrian-oriented instead of car-oriented.

The alternative institutional strategy depends on having the end in mind at the beginning: What would the world like look if the alternative succeeded in becoming the normal way of doing things? We were trying to create something that did not then exist in the United States, as well as making a transitional step toward a world in which cars played a smaller role in the overall transportation system.

The carsharing movement, as of this writing, is still evolving quickly, with new models and hybrids being invented, from peer-to-peer car sharing to dynamic ride sharing.3 As driverless vehicles move toward becoming a reality, and as we witness a wave of business-led innovation in transportation services, carsharing has come to seem like just the small beginning of a broader change in urban mobility. In some senses, the early carsharing movement “proved the market.” At the outset, we reasoned (obviously incorrectly) that for-profit car sharing was not going to be economically viable or it would have already existed. Instead, for-profit carsharing became dominant, and eventually we saw rental car companies and car manufacturers begin to get into the carsharing business and to explore new, related business models. Meanwhile, carsharing became part of a broader movement of collaborative consumption, which facilitates sharing all kinds of resources.4 The need and the opportunity are different now as a result of all of these changes.

No one today would think of starting a carsharing organization as an alternative institution, for the simple reason that they already exist and are almost everywhere a for-profit business venture. But the kinds of questions we asked ourselves in starting City CarShare are still relevant for activists who are thinking about where to start. How do we know where to focus our energies? Which alternative institutions are the most important to work on first? Let me suggest, as a starting place, the following questions as a way to help figure out which alternative institutions we should put our energy into:

  1. Do the organizers have the resources to succeed? Is the project practical, given the number of people involved, the skills of the organizers, and the funding they can access? Will the project be able to survive long enough to have an effect?
  2. Does the project address problems people are already aware of? Does it provide a new way of meeting needs people already know they have? Or does it require a more fundamental “consciousness raising” before people will be interested in being part of it? If it requires consciousness raising first, how possible is this? How much of a stretch will it be to get people interested?
  3. How many people will be touched by the project? Does it have the potential to reach into the “mainstream” and engage large numbers of people? Will it need a minimum number of participants before reaching stable size, and if so, is there a realistic plan for getting to that critical mass?
  4. Does it have the potential to grow, spread, or replicate? Can it link up with other alternative institutions and form part of a network? Does it suggest fulfillment on a larger scale that can inspire others to build on it or add to it?
  5. Are there preexisting institutions that can be transformed or added to so that they take on new roles—or must the alternative institution be created from scratch? If there 
is the potential to transform an existing institution, how hard will it be to make the changes? Is the institution open to new people? How are decisions made? How hard will it be to convince people already involved with the institution to make changes to it? Is the institution tired, out of energy, and in a sense waiting for energetic people to take it over? Or is it strong and closely protected?
  6. Will it provide the people involved in it with a different way of relating to each other? Will it give the participants actual experiences that will be personally transformative? Will it provide opportunities for self-development or consciousness raising? And are the organizers in a position to support the work of personal transformation or political education through the institution?
  7. Is it strategically located in relation to important institutions in our society? Will it trigger or suggest other changes in other institutions? If it succeeds, would it open up new possibilities for organizing that would build upon it?
  8. Does it help us paint a picture of how things should work? Does it “prefigure,” even if in a small way, a better society? Does it embody principles that, if fully extended, imply something about the nature of a society structured according to democratic or ecological values? Will the institution’s success help people to believe that a better world is possible or imagine what a better world might look like?

Each location and each historical moment will call for its own unique set of potential alternative institutions. In some cases, institutions already exist in a nascent fashion that approximate the structure of a good society; in other cases, the institutions will have to be created from scratch. What will be a revolutionary new idea in one moment will be a boring repetition in another.


By our own criteria, our carsharing venture was only partially successful: we barely scratched the surface of replacing private car ownership with something else. We had hoped to create a federation of nonprofit carsharing organizations; to provide open-source technology to enable anyone to share cars, or other resources; to embed car sharing within a network of other alternative institutions. None of that happened.

But carsharing did turn out to be wildly popular, spreading around the country and the world. We were able to make something that normal, apolitical people could relate to. We learned a lot about taking an idea with radical implications and making it have a broad appeal.

After more than a decade of operations, it was time for City CarShare to come to an end as an independent nonprofit. It was clear that carsharing of that type was going to be replaced by a new wave of transportation services—one-way carsharing (which allows people to leave the car wherever they want rather than returning it to the home pod), dynamic ride sharing (which takes people where they want to go like a taxi), and perhaps eventually driverless cars, which would whisk people around and finally put an end to personal car ownership except for hobbyists. None of this is what we predicted at the outset. But we had a part in launching the great wave of transportation change that took place at the start of the twenty-first century.

I hope this story will be joined by many other stories of new alternative institutions. I hope other people will develop the theory better than I have done. I hope other people will build alternative institutions that are truly socially transformative, that join together to make a new world.

Excerpted from Gabriel Metcalf, Democratic by Design, St. Martin’s Press, 2015.