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Andrew Conte

Sharing economy bringing us closer, safer

| Saturday, April 28, 2018, 5:11 p.m.
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

MEXICO CITY

The strange car pulled up outside of our rental house at 4:30 a.m.

None of us in my family of four knew the driver, but we walked up to the Volkswagen in the early morning darkness, handed the man our luggage and climbed inside.

We felt comfortable riding with our Uber driver even in the middle of the night. He has a rating of 4.83 out of 5 possible stars, has been driving for the past year and has received 83 rider compliments for excellent service. Other customers had spoken up and validated him. Besides, we knew that Uber would track the path of our ride.

We often think in the United States about how technology makes simple tasks easier, but here smartphone apps and other innovations of the so-called sharing economy also have made life safer while creating new job opportunities. The sharing economy refers to businesses in which people loan out their homes, vehicles and other possessions to strangers who are willing to pay for their use.

Half of Americans say they are likely to use sharing-economy services such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb when they travel, according to a 2017 report by Alliance Global Assistance, a travel insurance company. That's a huge jump from the 17 percent who said they would use those types of services two years earlier.

People living in the Mid-Atlantic region are among those most familiar with these services, and three-quarters of young people ages 18 to 34 say they are likely to use them, according to the research. Two-thirds of Americans say they trust sharing-economy services — although skeptics remain, with just 17 percent saying they find them “very trustworthy.”

During our time here, we have never once hailed a taxi off the street. Instead, we have used the Uber app to call for rides all over the city. Every time, the driver has shown up in a clean, modern car and provided friendly service. Several drivers even offered candy, which my children loved — and which totally undermined our years of warning them against getting in cars with strangers promising treats.

Technology also lowers the language barrier: English speakers can tell Uber where they want to go, and the app tells the driver the destination in Spanish. With just a few broken words, it's possible to reach the destination.

Similarly, we rented a house from a stranger rather than staying in a hotel. Forty-three people had reviewed our host on Airbnb and had given his house five out of five stars for cleanliness, location and value, among other things.

The owner works as an artist in the neighborhood, and when his grandmother died two years ago, he renovated her home to make extra money by renting it out. Not only did we stay with him, but throughout the trip he offered helpful advice about where to eat and gave us insider tips about the city.

Ten years ago when we first visited Mexico City as a family, it would have seemed unthinkable to stay in a stranger's house or to ride in someone else's car. But the same technologies that have disrupted industries such as hospitality and transportation are bringing the world a little closer — and making it safer, too.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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