(TNS) -- Upstart ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft have grabbed headlines over the past few years mostly because of the billions they’ve raised from investors and ongoing spats with local governments and taxi providers.
But there are larger questions surrounding these so-called "gig economy" companies. They center on the changing nature of jobs and the extent to which technology platforms can separate themselves from the sharing services that they enable.
The Pew Research Center sought to pin down how Americans use and feel about the rising tide of sharing economy companies in a new survey released May 19.
The conclusion: Users like using ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, as well as home-sharing outfits Airbnb and HomeAway.
But they struggle "to place these new modes of business into the types of concepts that they are comfortable with," said Aaron Smith, associate director of Pew Research.
"When you ask them general questions, they fall back on the language that the services themselves use," he said. "They tend to describe them as (software) platforms as opposed to transportation businesses or lodging businesses. They tend to see the workers as independent contractors rather than employees."
When pressed with specific questions about day-to-day expectations, however, users "see a pronounced role for these services in making sure they are safe and they operate the way they’re supposed to," said Smith.
Pew Research asked nearly 4,800 people about 11 sharing economy online platforms.
Seventy-two percent of Americans have used at least one of these on-demand Web 2.0 services. Most common was buying secondhand goods online on eBay, Craigslist or a similar website. That was followed by a same day delivery service such as Amazon Prime and purchasing tickets from an online reseller such as StubHub.
While more than half of survey participants have heard of Uber and Lyft, only 15 percent have actually used a ridesharing service – with 3 percent saying they used it on a daily or weekly basis. (Eleven percent have used a home-sharing service such as Airbnb.)
The median age of ridesharing users is 33. They tend to live in or near big cities — where Uber and Lyft operate. They also are likely to be college educated with good jobs.
Pew Research found that ridesharing users are closely following the regulatory debate surrounding Uber and Lyft. This month, the city of Austin required fingerprinting be included as part of the background check for Uber and Lyft drivers, which prompted the companies to pull out of the city.
Nearly 60 percent of users view Uber and Lyft as software companies that simply connect drivers with people looking for rides. Just 30 percent see them as transportation companies.
Most also view the drivers as independent contractors, not employees.
Still, users put responsibility on Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing technology firms to make sure the service performs. For example, 68 percent believe that drivers as well as Uber and Lyft share joint responsibility to make sure drivers are properly trained.
"This is a pretty nascent industry, but it clearly had an outsized cultural and political impact, particularly over the last year or so," said Smith. "We are hoping that a lot of the figures that are in this report will add some context and provide an additional voice to the debates that are going on seemingly in every city in the country."
The survey was the first of three on the sharing economy that Pew Research aims to produce this year. The next survey will focus on workforce issues, including talking with ridesharing drivers and other gig-economy workers.
©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.