How can companies like Airbnb, Lyft or Uber help in disasters?

June 21, 2019

The Rim Fire in California on Aug. 17, 2013.

By Linda Vu

This article orignally appeared at Berkeley Engineering

In the past few years, devastating California wildfires have forced more than half a million people to evacuate their homes. In many cases, local government agencies did not have enough resources to transport and shelter all of the evacuees, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly and disabled. Meanwhile those who could afford it, secured hotel rooms or Airbnbs and evacuated with their cars.

Stephen WongNow, researchers at UC Berkeley are suggesting that emergency management agencies and local relief organizations partner with companies in the sharing economy — including Airbnb, Lyft and Uber — and private citizens, to ensure equity in evacuations. They described their ideas in a first-of-its-kind policy brief published today.

“Private sharing economy companies have already acted in California disasters and I’ve found that private citizens are moderately willing to share their own resources in disaster relief situations, especially transportation,” said Stephen Wong, a transportation engineering Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “Local organizations and emergency response agencies should begin to build working relationships with these companies and include them in emergency training exercises.”

Although the sharing economy isn’t a one-sized fits all solution for every community, Wong notes that in certain cases these companies could be another tool in the toolkit for emergency management agencies. Because evacuation shelters have a limited number of beds, sharing platforms like Airbnb could be used to connect evacuees with people who would like to offer up a room in their home to people in need.

“For this study, we didn’t just want to look at how people with resources use shared services. Our concern is to understand how vulnerable populations, that don’t have resources, could benefit from these platforms,” said Susan Shaheen, a professor of transportation engineering in UC Berkeley’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Wong’s advisor.

From March to July 2018, Wong surveyed vulnerable individuals impacted by the December 2017 wildfires in Southern California, including the Thomas Fire, Creek Fire and Skirball Fire. He also looked at the actions of companies in the sharing economy during the recent disasters—specifically Airbnb, Lyft and Uber—and found that they often offered services at a loss to help people evacuate.

Susan Shaheen“There have been 26 disasters where the sharing economy was used in some way in the United States. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was one of the first disasters where these resources were used. Initially, there were incidents of price surging, which led to negative press, but this is no longer the case,” said Shaheen. “We hope this study is going to address some of the negative perceptions of the sharing economy in disaster relief with empirical evidence.”

In his research, Wong found that many of the sharing economy companies have banned surge pricing during a disaster. Oftentimes, the companies will pledge upwards of $300,000 as in-kind donations, which will allow them to offer evacuees $30 or $40 ride credits to and from evacuation centers and hospitals. Policywise, he suggests amending the current local and state evacuation plans to include private sharing companies as resource partners and create channels of communications so these companies can be leveraged in a disaster.

Additionally, Wong also encourages local organizations to work with neighborhood associations to develop localized community-based plans. And disaster councils should ensure that all available emergency and disaster resources can actually reach and help vulnerable populations.

“Because of the cycle of disasters, it’s hard to have a consistent policy conversation regarding an emergency evacuation plan. Because these events don’t happen every day, people don’t necessarily say this is an issue that we need to solve right now. Plus, emergency management agencies have very little staff funding to even build evacuation plans in the first place,” said Wong. “One of our suggestions is that these agencies start building working relationships with sharing economy companies as a stepping stone. This means that at the very minimum they can exchange information and offer situational awareness during a disaster.”

This research was funded by California’s SB 1 Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2018.