Shutterstock

When Kirsten Schultz slid into a Lyft and noticed several air fresheners shoved around the vehicle, she was nervous that it might become a problem. Schultz, a sex educator from Madison, Wisconsin, has asthma and is sensitive to smells. She’d hailed the ride to travel just a few miles from a conference at Stanford University back to her hotel, but it was not long before the overpowering smell of the air fresheners began to make her feel sick.

“I had the window by me down, trying to get as much clean, nonfreshened air as I could,” Schultz says. “About halfway through the ride I realized, I am going to throw up.” She says she spent 10 minutes gagging before the driver realized what was happening. He pulled over, and Schultz lurched out, vomiting on the sidewalk less than a block from her hotel.

Schultz’s predicament is an extreme case of how people react to the car fresheners commonly found in Lyfts and Ubers. Many ride-share customers consider the chemical smells of scented trinkets like Little Trees a mere fruity nuisance. Some might even like them. But for a lot of people, those little cardboard evergreens are a more serious problem.

Responses to two surveys in the early and mid-2000s suggest that air fresheners trouble 19 percent of Americans with headaches, breathing difficulties, or other health issues. Recently, hundreds of ride-share customers have begun posting on social media about car fresheners causing similar problems, including triggering their asthma, and in instances like Schultz’s, forcing them to leave their lunch on the sidewalk.

As Uber and Lyft battle it out to corner the ride-share market, both have taken steps to improve the rider experience. Uber has gone to great lengths recently to allow its customers to customize their rides. Last week, the company rolled out a controversial new “quiet mode” button that riders can click to signal they don’t want to talk for the duration of the journey. Passengers can also sync their phone to play their own music.

Lyft, meanwhile, has instituted a feedback system that asks riders who rate their drivers four stars or below, out of a possible five, to explain why they were dissatisfied. The riders’ comments are delivered to drivers anonymously, a Lyft spokesperson told me, “so they are clear on how to improve.” (Uber did not respond to request for comment.)

For now, however, there is no way to request a car without air fresheners. In their race to deliver every possible convenience to riders, Uber and Lyft still can’t control how drivers want their own cars to smell.

The result is a mostly silent war between riders, many of whom would prefer their car fragrance-free, and drivers, who are simply trying to please passengers and aren’t always aware of the online backlash. “Air fresheners do not make the air fresh. They just layer a sweet, artificial scent on top of the preexisting stink,” says the YouTuber Casey Neistat, who has been outspoken on the issue. “This aggregate stink is called ‘Uber stink.’” (Little Trees, the manufacturer of the popular evergreen-shaped air fresheners, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Many riders have taken to Twitter to voice their anger. “Is it, like, a rule Uber enforces that all of its drivers have to use a nausea-inducing air freshener?” one man tweeted. “Okay Uber, now I need a ‘no Black Ice air freshener’ option and we’re set. Or at least a low-smell option. I get headaches I’d say 75% of the time in Uber/Lyft from the smells,” said another.

Riders say they have submitted help requests on ride-sharing companies’ websites or attempted to reach out to them on Twitter to try to address the issue. “@Uber hey- you seriously need to do something about air fresheners - it is rampant ! - 80% of rides im completely nauseous - it’s gross and unhealthy,” tweeted one man.

Passengers who are highly sensitive to air fresheners sometimes say they avoid stepping into a scented car altogether. Several people I spoke with have canceled Lyfts that have arrived with an overpowering smell or given low ratings to drivers who overused air-freshening products. Drivers report that passengers have asked them to stow air fresheners in the glove compartment or remove them from the vehicle.

Sara Sharpe, a former school psychologist who experiences migraines, has messaged Lyft and Uber drivers before they pick her up and asked them to remove air fresheners. But she says that has only resulted in her rides getting canceled. “It’s not something I want to be difficult about, but I feel like I have to be to protect myself,” she says. A bad migraine can put her out of commission for the rest of the day.

When I raised this issue in a Facebook group for Uber and Lyft drivers, many said they went so heavy on air fresheners because they thought it might help them get a good rating. Uber and Lyft boot drivers from the services if their rating falls below a certain threshold. And for drivers of both companies, wages, already low, are reportedly falling. This month, the Economic Policy Institute found that Uber drivers earn the equivalent of $9.21 an hour after factoring in commissions, fees, vehicle costs, health insurance, and other expenses. For many drivers, every ride matters.

Some drivers say they have heard negative feedback about air fresheners, but didn’t always take it to heart. James Hale, a driver in Tennessee, says one woman complained twice about the freshener he uses in his car. “I thought if she really didn’t like the smell, she could have canceled and tried to get another person,” he says. “There’s nothing that’s a neutral scent that eliminates the odor of several people coming in all day.”

Hale notes that his nose is sensitive, too. Drivers have to deal with their fair share of bad odors, whether from smokers or riders who just came from the gym. And they worry about those odors lingering and affecting their rating from the next passenger. “I had a person spray Axe body spray in the car,” Hale told me. “I had to stop driving for an hour until it cleared out.”

Some drivers, aware of shifting consumer preferences, try not to overdo it. Dylan Esparza, a ride-share driver who runs a YouTube channel called The Rideshare Hub, says that when he does use air fresheners, he goes very light, because he’s aware “most passengers don’t like strong smells.” When Esparza started, though, like most drivers, he stocked up on air fresheners. “I tried out several fresheners in the beginning and found out I was allergic,” he says. “I realized a lot of passengers probably are as well.” Now he uses charcoal bags to soak up any errant smells from smokers and the like.

Air fresheners seem to be more prevalent in very hot and very cold climates, where drivers can’t just open the windows between rides to air out their cars. Harry Campbell, a former ride-share driver and the founder of The Rideshare Guy, a ride-share-industry blog, says that drivers also likely acclimate to the scent in their own car and might not realize how strong the air fresheners can smell to outside folks stepping in. “Drivers with the worst-smelling cars may not even know it,” he says.

Campbell has also seen many drivers accumulate air fresheners in their cars as a sign of how long they’ve been driving. “People collect them almost like medals,” he says. On one recent ride, he spotted nine air fresheners hanging from the rear-view mirror.

There’s already a long history of people complaining about smells in taxis. But air-freshener accumulation seems to be primarily an issue with ride-share drivers. Part of this is because in many cities, taxis change hands. Drivers don’t want to schlep their personal air fresheners between cars. Taxis also usually have sparser interiors. “Cab drivers tend to be more professional and full-time,” Campbell says. They offer fewer frills than Uber or Lyft rides, where drivers often spend their own money on accoutrements such as water bottles, mints, and air fresheners.

This whole conflict is yet another weird externality of the gig economy, which puts complete strangers in very close proximity all the time. It’s tempting to believe the fight could be resolved through simple communication. Riders could, after all, just tell drivers when they get in the car if the air freshener bothers them. But systems in which drivers and riders both rate each other make social interactions and etiquette even more complicated. Politely telling a driver that the car stinks could cause tension that leads to bad reviews, or an outright argument between two people who have never met. Once an air freshener is installed, it’s hard to alleviate the smell, even by shoving it in the glove box.

Many riders just want Lyft or Uber to sort the problem out for them. Some drivers are on board, too. Jay Cradeur, a ride-share driver who runs the podcast and website Rideshare Dojo, suggested that Uber and Lyft could add something to the app to allow customers to filter out air-freshener cars, something people have begged for on social media.

“I would have no problem with adding an air-freshener-free option,” Cradeur says. “We’re people and we are trying to do our jobs. We don’t like to be told how to do it or micromanaged. Who does? But something as basic as an air freshener seems like a reasonable request.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.