06/12/2013 12:17 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2013

Sharing Economy Disasters: Can Lyft And Airbnb Save San Francisco When The Big One Hits?


If there's one complaint that unites virtually all San Franciscans, it's how difficult it is to find a cab when you really need one. Now, just imagine how much harder that would be after the Big One hits.

Just as many in San Francisco have turned to tech-savvy startups like Lyft and Airbnb to supplement the city's relatively low supply to taxicabs and hotel rooms, officials are now looking to the sharing economy for disaster relief.

"The growing 'sharing economy' is leveraging technology and innovation to help the city become more prepared and resilient against disaster," said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a statement announcing the formation of partnership between the city and BayShare, a trade organization representing over a dozen Bay Area-based sharing economy companies. "The sharing economy was born here, and partnering with BayShare, we are committed to ensuring that San Francisco supports this emerging sector’s success and nurturing even greater civic involvement."

The project was partially inspired by Airbnb's response to Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the East Coast late last year. During the storm, Airbnb reconfigured its systems to allow people to list rooms they had available for those displaced by Sandy's destruction at no cost.

San Francisco emergency management officials worked with Airbnb to develop a tool that lets the company create similar offers for disaster-stricken areas around the world with as little as 30-minutes notice.

"Actual emergencies look more like people coming together than cities falling apart," said San Francisco Department of Emergency Management executive director Anne Kronenberg said in a statement. "San Francisco's recovery starts with the community and our partners that are there to lend a hand."

BayShare will be added to the city's disaster council, a group of elected officials and representatives of private organizations--such as the American Red Cross and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce--that meet regularly to plan for potential emergencies.

The city is hoping to use this new collaboration to create more opportunities for sharing economy firms to contribute in the event of disaster. The San Francisco Chronicle offers some possible options:

TaskRabbit, which helps connect people to take care of their to-do lists, for example, could help link experienced and altruistic repairmen with those who need to relight a pilot light or board up a broken window.

Or Yerdle, a site for people to post stuff they want to give away, can bring together donors and victims needing to replace lost items.

This partnership comes at an interesting time for the relationship between California's governmental agencies and the largely Bay Area-based firms that comprise the sharing economy.

On one hand, boosters like the decidedly pro-business Lee have been doing whatever they can to bolster these companies with actions like the creation of a citywide working group on the sharing economy.

At the same time, however, a bevy of regulators have slammed the organizations for taking advantage of legal loopholes in the law that give them unfair advantages over their more traditional competitors.

The San Francisco International Airport recently issued an order banning car sharing services from operating on the premises and filed a lawsuit against one such company for allegedly flouting its wishes.

Additionally, earlier this month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency started running a series of ad on the sides of city buses encouraging riders to use taxicabs licensed by the city, in a thinly veiled swipe at ride sharing services like Lyft and Sidecar.



The Sharing Economy