Can the Sharing Economy be Leveraged in Disaster Relief?

September 12, 2019

A couple surveys a burned down neighborhood

​​​​​​​Lessons from California

This article originally appeared at Move Forward

Natural and man-made disasters and their emergency evacuations are more common than many people realize, and remain a common strategy to ensure safety. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the most frequent causes of evacuations in the U.S. each year are fires and floods. Due to the heavy reliance on private vehicles in the U.S., evacuations using personally owned automobiles have historically been the focus of many emergency managers. However, this can be problematic for public transit dependent and carless households who may have transportation challenges in an emergency. The critical role of evacuation planning for carless households became a serious issue during Hurricane Katrina when evacuation plans did not adequately include a process for evacuating the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people without reliable personal transportation. However, New Orleans is not alone. Research has found that one-third of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. do not have evacuation plans, and less than half of cities with evacuation plans mention carless or vulnerable populations.

Lessons learned from past experiences in emergency management include the need to build overcapacity and redundancy into evacuation plans that include multi-modal evacuation options. Two strategies that may be used to increase transportation and housing capacity and redundancy during emergency evacuations and their aftermath include:

  • Homesharing: the sharing of a residence (e.g., Airbnb)
  • Shared Mobility: the shared use of a transportation mode for passenger mobility and goods delivery (e.g., transportation network companies (TNCs, also known as ridesourcing and ridehailing) that allow users to request car rides through a smartphone application and charge riders based on distance and travel time).

It is important to note that some disasters may not lend themselves to shared mobility at the time of an evacuation (e.g., emergency conditions may adversely impact cellular or data coverage, and wildfires or earthquakes that do not provide a lot of warning). However, homesharing and shared mobility may be able to provide critical housing, transportation, and delivery services in the aftermath of disasters before a community has completely recovered. As such, these shared services have the potential to serve a variety of use cases during the preparedness and response phases of the disaster cycle.

Shared mobility and homesharing present an opportunity for emergency management agencies and emergency support functions to incorporate these transportation and sheltering resources into disaster preparedness planning and emergency response. In California alone, shared mobility and homesharing companies have been active in eight large-scale disasters since 2017. See timeline below.


Reprinted from Wong and Shaheen 2019

Recently, the authors released a study titled “Current State of the Sharing Economy and Evacuations: Lessons from California.” This study conducted three surveys of individuals (n=589) impacted by California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 and a qualitative discussion of four focus groups (n=37), representing different vulnerable populations (including older adults, people with disabilities, low-income individuals, and Spanish-speaking individuals). The study sought to understand three key questions:

  1. How was the sharing economy employed during the California wildfire evacuations?
  2. What is the willingness of individuals to offer their own private shelter or transportation to assist others? What reservations might individuals have?
  3. How might vulnerable populations use the sharing economy in disasters? What are the potential use cases, benefits, and limitations of different vulnerable groups?

This study asked individuals about their willingness to provide transportation and sheltering resources in a future evacuation under four scenarios, and their reservations related to sharing transportation and sheltering resources in an evacuation. The survey found that very few evacuees employed the shared mobility (e.g., TNCs) for evacuations, and there was limited use of homesharing services (ranging from 4% to 6% of evacuees). The survey also found that there are notable underused transportation and housing resources that could be shared during a disaster.

  • 84% to 90% of households indicated having one or more extra beds.
  • 54% to 69% of households indicated having two or more open seats in their vehicle.

The survey also found that:

  • 9% to 14% indicated extreme willingness to share personal shelter at a cost, and 19% to 30% were extremely likely to share a shelter for free.
  • 37% to 62% of respondents were willing to share personal transportation before evacuating, and 59% to 72% were willing to share personal transportation while evacuating.
  • There was also a moderate willingness to deviate from an evacuation route to pick up an additional passenger.

fire image

Personal safety and security were common concerns to sharing transportation and housing by survey respondents. In general, the focus groups indicated somewhat negative feelings toward TNC use in disasters and somewhat positive feelings toward homesharing. The availability of a personal vehicle and concerns about cost and accessibility often contributed to overall perceptions of shared services. With respect to TNCs, vulnerable populations expressed strong concern about driver availability and reliability. There was also concern about accessible services for people with disabilities, language barriers for non-English speakers, and affordability for low-income users. Similar concerns were also raised with homesharing services. Advanced planning and outreach, coupled with partnerships, were identified as strategies for expanding use of shared mobility and homesharing in disaster response and recovery efforts.

Emergency support functions provide a structure for coordinating interagency support during emergency incidents. Coordinating with shared mobility and homesharing services during emergency incidents represents one example for leveraging underused transportation and sheltering capacity. Moving forward, shared mobility and homesharing could provide additional resources for communities to explore in disaster response and recovery.

Susan Shaheen is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a research engineer with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also Co-Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) at the University of California, Berkeley.

Stephen Wong is a doctoral candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley, and a graduate student researcher with the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies.

Adam Cohen is a transportation researcher TSRC at UC Berkeley. Previously, Adam worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).