Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As Irma descends on Florida, ride-seekers confront a problem Silicon Valley has neglected to solve.
But there is no app for Adrienne Beauchamp, who is sitting in her home in West Palm Beach, waiting for Hurricane Irma to hit.
Beauchamp is one of countless Floridians who took to local rideshare boards in search of an escape from the Category 4 storm predicted to wreak unprecedented damage on the Sunshine State this weekend. She’d like to be in Atlanta right now, like thousands who’ve evacuated by car, plane, bus and train. But she’s not—and it isn’t for lack of trying.
“We’re looking for a ride, anywhere,” read the ad she posted to Craigslist on Wednesday. Hers was one among a great many requests that have popped up since Tuesday on Craigslist, Carpoolworld, and in Facebook groups. “I've been packed, been ready. Help me get out of the eye of the storm please,” reads one. “Please if you have anything message me,” reads another. Most were requests for a seat headed north, but there were also plenty of offers of vehicle space. Good intentions seemed pervasive, but some were looking to capitalize: “Expenses need to be covered, the seats/ride will be offered to the highest bidders.” A few were perfectly Craigslist in character, flagging preferences for certain ethnicities, gender, and chill factors:
Some posters have made successful matches, like one man driving to Orlando who picked up a friend-of-a-friend at a bus stop. Two French citizens in Miami Beach found a ride with a family headed to Atlanta—a match I happened to make through reporting.
Others, like Beauchamp, have not been so lucky. She and her husband have two dogs, which was a deal-breaker when they put up a Craigslist ad in search of a ride. So on Wednesday night, Beauchamp booked a rental car and put up another ad offering two extra seats to Atlanta. An avalanche of strangers’ texts and emails hit her inbox.
“Hi my name is patty im looking for a ride out poss up to GA… or as far away as poss plz call me,” one woman begged. From a mother in another state: “I need a ride for my son out of delray to melbourne today… I will pay cash just to drop him off.” Another was calm and collected: “Hi Adrienne. Saw your ad. Have you left South Florida yet?”
Most requests were to get to other parts of Florida, which put Beauchamp in a bind: “If you’re running for your own life, you can’t take detours,” she tells me.
Mismatched geographies, price gouging, wasted seats, lost time, and the wrong cars: these are the inconveniences the Uber-for-everything universe was supposed to solve. They are why the world’s largest ride-hailing app all but destroyed the taxi industry when it came onto the scene in 2010: They connect riders, drivers, and vehicles cheaply, quickly, and effectively. Peer-to-peer carpooling is happening every day of the week in major U.S. metros on Waze, Carma, and Getaround. Anyone can get on their phones and deliver groceries for a buck, or fix somebody’s leaking toilet.
Yet in this so-called “sharing economy,” the best available tools for Floridians looking to escape a catastrophic storm are luck, diligence, and prayer. And this is in a state with regularly occurring hurricanes and an enormous population of non-drivers—some elderly, others non-car-owners, many undocumented and fearful of roadside checkpoints. That’s why Florida, famously transit-poor, has a robust networks of carpool boards and one of the most established jitney networks in the U.S.
Where is the on-demand app for emergency rides? Unlike so many button-tap “solutions,” this is a problem for which technology would be an obvious win.
FEMA could pay for it. State or local governments could advertise and distribute it. Imagine if Uber or Lyft (and local taxi companies, too) switched into an emergency mode in the event of a hurricane—and transit agencies made custom apps free to download ahead of storms. With a GPS-enabled tool, “you could have coordination on both sides of the evacuation,” says David King, a transportation researcher at Arizona State University who specializes in taxi and ride-hailing services.
Riders in one direction needn’t be stranded on the way home. King also points out that an Uber-esque app capable of scanning traffic data would be able to suggest the best routes and openings for good samaritans headed in from safe zones to help evacuation efforts. “As we’ve seen with Harvey and every natural disaster, people are primed to pitch in,” King says.
It seems Uber-for-hurricanes is just another example of the real-world problems Silicon Valley has neglected to solve. King has heard developers floating the idea of evacuation apps, but says has never seen them come to fruition. Reached for comment about such a feature, an Uber representative pointed to the company’s assistance with post-hurricane recovery efforts. Lyft did not respond.
Of all the woeful gaps in disaster preparedness and planning that Americans are now being confronted with lately, this could be the lowest-hanging fruit. As Hurricane Harvey descended on Texas two weeks ago, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner decided against issuing an evacuation order—largely because of highway capacity. “That seems like a failure of emergency evacuation,” says Daniel B. Hess, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo who has studied volunteer-led evacuation efforts in the face of disaster. “Surely we can do a better job of coordinating people who are ready and willing to evacuate, but can’t, because they don’t have a car or anyone to take them.”
It’s impossible to say how much extra capacity such an app would add in a huge metro area like Miami, but imagine all the empty car seats that just escaped South Florida in the last few hours. Each extra spot could mean a saved life. “Anything we can do to help people get out of harm's way, we should be doing,” says Hess.
Clearly, there are no easy answers when it comes to moving millions in the face of a storm. Private vehicles are never going to be a complete answer to emergency mobility in dense areas when disaster strikes—we don’t all get our own lifeboats on this ship. And, amid rain and wind and rising waters, it’s often more dangerous to be on the road than not. Coordinated mass transit is essential; so is coordinated planning with fuel companies, so that drivers aren’t stranded for fear of lacking a refill. But being stranded because you couldn’t match with an empty seat, as Beauchamp is, is plainly unnecessary.
Which is exactly where Beauchamp still is. On Thursday morning, as she sifted through texts searching for a match, she got wind that the rental agency had rejected her reservation. By then, it was too late to book a train or plane. So she’s at home, trying to stay calm, and still receiving texts for her original post. Texts like:
I’ll pay for gas, my name is Anthony, please let me know
My dad is down there in Deerfield Beach, Century Village. am looking to get him up Atlanta or somewhere in GA
Looking to get out of FL.
“An app that worked like Uber would have been awesome,” says Beauchamp. “Maybe next time Florida will get this right.”