A few years back I wrote a goofy post trying to look at car ownership not as a personal consumption expenditure, but as a productive input; as a profit center, not a cost center. For the last few months I’ve been fooling around with our local “micromobility” services, in particular the Bird dockless electric scooters and Capital Bikeshare bikes which I have unlimited free access to through their “transportation equity” programs.
This naturally made me wonder, if you entertain my hypothesis and decide transportation is in fact a productive input, what are the most lucrative uses of free, unlimited transportation? In a sense this is looking at the situation backwards from the usual point of view: most people first have a job, then choose the most economical way of getting to and from their job. In that case, transportation is like acquiring raw lumber at a carpentry shop. Once you own a carpentry shop, your goal is to acquire the lumber as cheaply as possible.
My situation is the opposite: I’ve acquired some free lumber (transportation in this analogy), and now want to decide whether to turn it into cabinetry, furniture, two-by-fours, or firewood.
So, here are the most straightforward ways I came up with to convert transportation into money.
Here we’re taking the assignment at its most literal. This is a job that I have never actually seen anyone do outside of movies and TV shows, but my understanding is that in big cities there are small fleets of bicyclists carrying around physical copies of things like contracts and deeds that need to be transported between offices even faster than the mainstream delivery services can accommodate. I’m not sure how common these positions are now that things like stock certificates and bonds are mainly conveyed electronically, but there must still be some documents that require wet ink signatures or notary seals, and therefore must be physically transported around town.
The even more cinematic version of this is the process server who stalks their prey in order to physically deliver lawsuits, summons, subpeonae, and things of that nature to unwilling recipients in unguarded moments.
This is an industry I didn’t know existed until moving to the East Coast, since I’d only ever been shown apartments by landlords themselves, or by professional management companies that handled viewings, leases, and maintenance. It turns out there’s a whole army of 30-somethings who cruise around town showing apartments they have no connection to whatsoever: they receive a schedule notification, the code to a key lockbox, and show apartments they’ve never seen before in their lives. While this requires a bit more time allocated to any given job, you can see the essential input here is once again transportation: the main thing required of the worker is the ability to move throughout the day to as many different viewings as possible.
I signed up for a bunch of “mystery shopper” programs years ago but confess I have never completed a single shop, for the simple reason that they mostly don’t pay very well. Mystery shops are for the most part in fixed locations: restaurants, retailers, hotels, amusement parks, and so on, none of which are necessarily very close to each other, and none of the mystery shop companies offer to build you out a day of shops combined with the most efficient way to hit them all throughout the day.
Free transportation takes the sting out of hauling yourself around town trying on clothes you don’t want to buy, and in big enough cities you could probably scratch together a hundred bucks or so a day, plus whatever crap you end up getting reimbursed for.
While most of the food delivery “gig” companies require and expect you to have and use your own car, in some markets you may be able to apply as a bicycle user. In that case, you may need to invest in an insulated bag like the quite reasonably-priced ones sold by Grubhub. I haven’t signed up as a driver for any of these services yet simply because I don’t want to burn my chances at a referral bonus, but if you’re a delivery driver, feel free to leave your referral code in the comments or let me know by e-mail what the best signup opportunities are right now.
I find this exercise entertaining because it highlights the odd way we habitually “break up” economic activity into constituent parts that are fundamentally intertwined. In reality, a worker’s commute to the office is just as much a part of their work day as the hours spent behind a computer or a cash register, but from their employer’s perspective, those same hours are treated as an employee’s “free time.” That lets us play with the opposite condition: if a worker’s time in transit is properly treated as a productive input, what are the opportunities to convert transportation directly into income, instead of relying on employers as intermediaries?