The Great Adaptation Road Trip: San Francisco, California

The last in a six-part series in which the authors, Allie Goldstein and Kirsten Howard, recent graduate students from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, tour the United States, uncovering stories of people preparing for life in a changing climate.

We decided to visit San Francisco to explore how the burgeoning technology industry is helping people during extreme weather events such as hurricanes. Airbnb—a hotel alternative we relied on throughout our road trip for shelter and good company—is using its powerful interface to help stranded people in disasters like Hurricane Sandy, and the company is now partnering with the city of San Francisco to push its disaster response potential even further.
—Allie and Kirsten

Airbnb is revolutionizing the bed and breakfast business—an increasingly popular online platform through which people rent their spare room or extra apartment to travelers passing through town, the company contributed $56 million to the San Francisco economy in 2011 and a whopping $240 million to Paris’s economy in 2012.

What’s so great about staying in a stranger’s guest room, you may ask? For one, we’ve been able to get local tips about the place we’re visiting. Our host in Nashville pointed us in the direction of her favorite honky-tonk bars. We also get to experience a real neighborhood instead of sleeping off the highway in a generic hotel with a bland continental breakfast, and it usually costs less than budget hotels. Airbnb also adds value through its platform, which encourages hosts and guests to review each other, helping users trust hosts they’ve never met.

Shelter in a storm

It probably sounds like we’re secretly being paid by Airbnb to write this post—but there’s an adaptation story behind it. Fresh off an Airbnb stay in Asheville, North Carolina, we came across an innovative tool that the company put together to help cities find shelter for displaced people in emergencies. It all started with Hurricane Sandy last October, when 776,000 people were displaced by the storm. An Airbnb hostess named Shell owns a loft apartment in New York City that she occasionally rents out to guests. When the hurricane hit, she posted her apartment on Airbnb for free, inviting those whose homes were inundated to rest safely and dryly at her place. Even more remarkable is that Airbnb caught on to Shell’s idea. The company decided to rewrite their web code to allow hosts to post their homes for free in a disaster. It works like this: Airbnb waives the fees it normally charges when people rent their space. When a disaster occurs, hosts get an e-mail letting them know that the Airbnb Disaster Response program is kicking in. And hopefully, a swarm of generous Airbnb home-sharers invite those less fortunate under their roofs at no cost.

“Our system wasn’t set up to support free emergency housing, so we worked to make the necessary changes to help our community support people in need,” said Airbnb Founder Nathan Blecharczyk. “This work and the amazing outpouring of generosity from our community inspired us to build this tool. In a crisis, finding housing can be one of the toughest challenges. With 300,000 properties across the globe listed on Airbnb, we now have the infrastructure in place to help at a moment’s notice.”

Of course it’s unclear how this can work when the power goes out. Airbnb and other social networking tools like Twitter have the potential to be helpful in disasters, but they require a 3G network or wireless internet connection (and we know many Sandy victims didn’t have that mid-crisis). Airbnb recognizes this—and they (and many others) are working on it. “This is going to be an iterative process. We’re by no means experts in disaster relief,” said Molly Turner, Airbnb’s director of public policy.

A city joins the sharing business

The disaster response model got the attention of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management. In a new partnership, the city is working with a suite of sharing economy companies like Airbnb to identify areas where they can help with emergency management. The sharing economy promotes economic activity through sharing, the basic idea being that a lot of people own things they don’t use all the time—a lawnmower, for instance—and that many others are willing to pay to use those things part of the time, if (and this is a big if) there exists a platform to make sharing easy and effective.

A group called BayShare ,which represents companies like City Car Share, TaskRabbit, and Lyft—all based on sharing economy models—is heading up the partnership with San Francisco. “The growing ‘sharing economy’ is leveraging technology and innovation to help our city become more prepared and resilient against disaster,” said San Francisco mayor, Edwin Lee.

In San Francisco, earthquakes are the primary impetus for disaster preparedness, but this type of public-private partnership could be formed in many cities, and it’s a model for climate resilience. Airbnb implements the Disaster Response function all over the world, including for hurricanes that are increasing in severity and frequency with climate change. By encouraging neighbors to share their resources in times of need, these sharing economy platforms might just hold the key to building more resilient communities.

Learn more about Allie and Kirsten’s road trip at