Need a ride or a bed? A smartphone in every hand has made it easier to find others offering them affordably, launching the so-called “sharing economy”. Many Swiss have bought into the trend for reasons beyond money – and despite uncharted legal waters.
“We don’t absolutely need the money…it was really just about meeting new people and improving my English,” says Elizabeth*, who, together with her boyfriend, hosts travellers in Bern through the online sharing platform Airbnb, a website and app that facilitates renting out private apartments or rooms.
She estimates that they bring in about CHF500 ($555) per month – about one-tenth the average Swiss monthly salary – by renting out one room in their two-bedroom flat.
Worldwide sharing platforms like Airbnb were born in part out of the economic crisis, which strained resources and forced people to pinch their pennies in creative ways. But for those who didn’t suffer as much in the crisis – such as the Swiss – sharing is about something else.
“In Switzerland it’s more about a desire for the social contact and the lifestyle,” says Karin Frick, co-author of “Sharity”, a study of the sharing economy by the Swiss-based Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.
The Duttweiler Institute asked about 1100 people in Switzerland and Germany to take an online survey indicating what items they would be willing to share and what motivates them to do so.
“Financial and economic situations force a large percentage of people to share and trade things because they couldn’t afford it on their own; the Swiss do it more because it’s good for the environment, it’s fun to do things together instead of alone, you feel good if you use [car sharing] even if you could afford your own,” adds Frick.
Elizabeth says she especially likes hosting for Airbnb because “you don’t have to go on holiday – the holiday comes to you” in the form of people from many different countries. Plus, she feels like she’s doing her part to help tourists experience Switzerland because most of the people she hosts wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the steep hotel prices.
And Jasmin Samsudeen, who recently founded the Zurich-based “park it” platform to allow people to share parking spaces, says that although start-up costs were higher in Switzerland than they would have been elsewhere, it’s the ideal place for someone with little experience to get people to support and participate in a sharing project.
“In another country I would never have had as many people who would have listened to me and signed up just because they found it a good and nice idea,” she says. “People participate without the monetary aspect being in the forefront.”
What's there to share?
Examples of sharing platforms available in Switzerland:
Apartment/house, bed: airbnb.com, couchsurfing.com, 9flats.com, housetrip.com
Office, workspace: liquidspace.com, shareyouroffice.com
Storage, parking:sharemystorage.com, parkit.ch, parkatmyhouse.com
Garden: yardshare.com, sharedearth.com
Car: mobility.ch, uber.com
Tools: pumpipumpe.ch, sharely.ch, frents.com
Time and knowledge: taskrabbit.com, gigwalk.com, skillshare.com
Pets and animals: dogvacay.com, kuhleasing.ch
Food: eatwith.com, youthfoodmovement.ch
Trouble in share-adise
However, as Bern’s Berner Zeitung newspaper reported in September 2013, the somewhat uncharted waters of sharing projects like Airbnb can pose problems for those who are among the first to participate and learn hard lessons as a result.
One renter in the capital who frequently let out his second apartment to guests via Airbnb suddenly got a letter informing him he would be losing the apartment because he had not told his landlord that he would be subletting it – the landlord had found his listing and recognised the apartment building from the Airbnb photos advertising the space.
Although Elizabeth says her neighbours don’t have any problems with her hosting activities, she’s not exactly sure how her landlord would react to the news – but she says she’s not worried since she’s not making a profit on the apartment. Swiss renters are generally allowed to sublet their apartments but they may not turn a profit by charging more than it would cost them to live in the space for the same amount of time.
But, laws and strictness in such cases vary from landlord to landlord and even city to city, so the Swiss government is currently taking a closer look at apartment-sharing platforms like Airbnb and considering possible nationwide legal changes to rental contracts. Groups like the Swiss Real Estate Association are calling for “a level playing field”, since Airbnb operates in a legal grey area where it isn’t subject to the same taxes and fees as the hotel industry, for example.
For its part, Airbnb says it’s up to each individual renter to make sure that using the service doesn’t conflict with the terms of his or her lease. The company is currently involved in a lawsuit against the city of New York, which has subpoenaed data on the 225,000 Airbnb hosts active in the city because they may be in violation of a 2011 city law regarding short-term rentals.
Arnaud Bertrand, who founded the house-sharing platform House Trip in Lausanne, told swissinfo.ch at Geneva's LIFT innovation conference that although some governments – most notably Britain's – see the sharing economy as an asset and try to work with those behind it, many governments want to ban the concept behind his project outright.
Although it’s also had its share of regulatory issues in other places – most notably lawsuits versus car and taxi services in several American cities – the driver-sharing start-up Uber recently found Zurich a fairly easy place to set up shop thanks to open taxi operation laws.
Uber’s app functions by allowing a pool of available drivers and anyone who needs a ride to sign in and either order a car or pick up a passenger. Passengers auto-pay with a registered credit card, and drivers give a portion of their earnings to Uber for management of the service.
“Zurich is one of the most liberal markets you can find,” says Benedetta Lucini, Uber’s regional general manager for Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Germany. “The taxi and limo license are similar if not the same, so some taxis can just take off the taxi sign on top and drive as a limo. And licences are un-capped, so it’s a market that is quite open to these kinds of new apps.”
Lucini says the main challenges have been competition with Switzerland’s stellar public transportation and a general reluctance among the Swiss to enter credit card information into an app. But Uber’s growth has been helped by high smartphone penetration as well as the fact that many of Zurich’s cabs – which Lucini calls “some of the worst taxis you can find in Europe” –are antiquated and have been slow to accept credit cards.
Switzerland has an especially long history when it comes to car sharing, with one of the first-ever examples of a vehicle sharing project registered to a Zurich housing cooperative as early as 1948. Mobility, Switzerland’s largest car-sharing platform, traces its roots back to 1987 and has especially profited from a partnership with what some might consider its main competitor: the Swiss Federal Railways.
Park it also recently partnered with the Railways to enable train riders to pay for parking spaces near stations through a smartphone and to make the Railway’s “Park and Rail” spots visible on the park it app.
Frick says that support and understanding for sharing projects among the Swiss population probably has its roots in the country’s long, successful history with publicly funded entities like the Railways and in its many longstanding cooperatives, from major supermarkets Migros and Coop to numerous banks, insurance companies and agricultural producers.
The number of Swiss cooperatives is quickly dropping, declining by more than one-fifth over the last ten years, and Frick acknowledges the model has “gathered dust”. But the sharing economy, she says, is the same concept in different packaging.
“I have discussed with cooperatives that they could profit from this trend because it’s essentially the same thing that they’re doing,” Frick says. “Just from the mentality of being ready to share, cooperatives have given Switzerland very good genetic roots.”
Be that as it may, Frick doesn’t think the Swiss will be leaders in the innovation of sharing start-ups anytime soon.
“Switzerland knows the concept very well, but the economic pressure isn’t high enough to dynamically develop the new trends,” she says. “Switzerland won’t be a pioneer as long as the living standard is so high.”