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Uber vs. Airbnb: Which Is Causing More Harm?

Both companies have made headlines recently for ugly reasons, spurring us to ask questions about the price of using these services

Airbnb and Uber billboards mounted above a town Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Sharing economy” services like Uber and Airbnb are convenient for the people who use them, but they can also have deleterious effects on the communities they operate in. The economic devastation Uber and competitors like Lyft have unleashed came into sharp focus in New York City this week, when a livery driver named Doug Schifter died by suicide after publishing a Facebook post about the current local policies toward car services that he believes led to his grim workplace circumstances. His post highlighted, once again, how the rise of the gig economy has put many workers in crisis.

It was not the only disturbing recent news about New York’s gig-economy ecosystem. Last week a new study estimated that Airbnb had caused a substantial hike in long-term rental prices for the median New York renter, creating a rise in “ghost hotels” that removed between 7,000 and 13,500 apartments from the market over three years, exacerbating the city’s already-dire affordable housing problems.

This news highlights how ethically fraught these services are, and it makes me wonder which company has done more damage to local communities: Airbnb or Uber?— Kate Knibbs

Alyssa Bereznak: Before I choose one, I want to say that a line about the driver who died by suicide from that devastating New York Times piece keeps coming back to me: “He was not a participant in the gig economy; he was a casualty of it.”

To me, that’s the focus of this roundtable: to talk about the people who choose to opt out of the gig economy, which is designed to cut individual-worker benefits, but still can’t avoid its damaging effects.

Knibbs: Yes, that line is haunting! And I realize this is a tricky question for that reason: It’s hard to decide which one is worse when they are both causing so much damage.

Justin Charity: Uber is scarier. Its service is designed to underscore just how expendable any given worker is and how marginal they are to the company’s constitution. Given the ride service’s popularity and scale, Uber has a chilling effect on how we all think about modern labor in general.

Bereznak: Yeah, I think I have to agree for the sheer fact that Uber’s incentives structure has inadvertently pushed drivers to pee in jars so they don’t lose time and money. Airbnb might be depraved in certain ways, but there are no mobile bathrooms involved.

Charity: Lotta pee in the news these days …

Victor Luckerson: If Uber is incentivizing dangerous habits among drivers, it’s primarily because riders demand low prices and fast service. So I think it’s tough to damn these companies when they operate as peer-to-peer services more than, say, Amazon, which requires its workers to meet brutal productivity thresholds to keep their jobs. Uber and Airbnb both have fairly affluent customer bases that could, if they cared, choose not to use the services.

Knibbs: This leads me to our next question!

Is there a way to use Airbnb and Uber/Lyft ethically?

Bereznak: Well, I don’t know about 100 percent ethically, but maybe pseudo-ethically. The first step in the ridesharing game is to use just Lyft. (Peter Thiel’s an investor, and, while he is controversial — to put it mildly — he’s the lesser evil.) The next step is to always tip generously. Finally, follow basic etiquette, especially in shared rides like Lyft Line. But just the fact that the service exists is still going to ruin lives and chip away at investment in public transportation. With Airbnb: Try to vet your host to make sure they’re not gutting entire homes and bumping up the rent.

Charity: I disagree with Victor here. I don’t think the ethical concerns can be transferred to the consumer and workers like that. Uber and Airbnb developed their respective services to exploit demand and labor and in various ways. The consumer has choices, but they don’t have power — at least not in their relation to the company, only in their relation to the worker (the Uber driver) or the citizen (displaced residents). And even then, the company has obscured and diffused so much of the political impact of consumer choice.

Luckerson: But the only way to change how they operate would be through the actions of customers, either financially, by not using them, or politically, by engaging in the debates happening around the country about Airbnb/Uber regulations. Nashville just passed some strict Airbnb regulations, largely because of grassroots efforts by locals who didn’t want their neighborhoods turned into hotels and got their city council folks engaged in the debate.

And Charity, what you said about diffused political impact is important too. When you start thinking about companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb as political actors rather than benevolent (or I guess, in Uber’s case, comically evil) Silicon Valley monoliths, the idea of changing their behavior seems more achievable.

Knibbs: This is a good reminder to read Victor’s excellent investigation into how Airbnb has changed Nashville’s neighborhoods!

Bereznak: I suppose it’s a lot harder to organize locally around a transportation system that exists everywhere, as opposed to fixed property. But [Nashville’s new legislation is] encouraging!

Charity: That’s always my instinct about these things. It’s just so prohibitively difficult to define and popularize ethical consumption of some unethical product or service; the more sensible course always seems to be improving (through politics) the conditions under which the product or service is offered. I think hyperindividualized consumer angst doesn’t do much for anyone.

Luckerson: Agreed.

Knibbs: Yeah, I’m starting to lose faith in the efficacy of consumer boycotting, but I think the point Victor made about participating in grassroots organization is important.

Bereznak: I mean, hyperindividualized consumer angst is my middle name, whether it’s an effective way to to change things or not.

Knibbs: Ah, ole Alyssa “Hyperindividualized Consumer Angst” Bereznak!

Bereznak: You can imagine how much I got teased on the playground growing up.

Knibbs: I’m going to ask one last question, but I’m not sure whether there’s much of an answer.

Are there any “sharing economy” companies that are making communities better?

Luckerson: Ride Austin is a nonprofit ridesharing service in Austin that gives drivers better rates and introduced an option that rounds up the bill and donates the extra cents to charity before Lyft did. But its user base tanked when Lyft and Uber came back to town last summer.

Bereznak: It’s heartwarming to know these kinds of companies exist. I fear that they’re also very rare.

Luckerson: In Austin’s case, it’s like people had the alternative and just decided it wasn’t worth the extra effort or slightly worse service or higher price. The independent bookstore model seemingly doesn’t work in the sharing economy.

Charity: If Victor would just buy me a car, we wouldn’t have these problems.

Luckerson: I’ll sell you a 2010 Kia Forte in approximately three years.