A new study reveals that African-American passengers who use smartphone apps to summon a ride had higher wait times or a higher rate of cancellation than non-African-American customers, according to Bloomberg. Also, female passengers were taken on longer, more expensive routes than male passengers. It’s a troubling sign that tech-savvy transportation companies like Uber and Lyft have a long way to go before they can transcend the discrimination that has plagued their predecessors in the traditional taxi industry.
The findings, which were published Monday by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of Washington, were based on nearly 1,500 rides in Seattle and Boston using three ride-hail apps: Uber, Lyft, and Flywheel. Uber drivers in Boston were more than twice as likely to cancel rides for male passengers with African-American-sounding names than other men. And black passengers faced a noticeably longer wait time for Uber and Lyft than white passengers in Seattle.
The researchers believe that discrimination starts when passengers attach information like names and photos to their rider profiles. Uber drivers only see a passenger’s location and star rating before accepting a request. But once they accept the trip, they can see a passenger’s photo and name, which is why discrimination by Uber drivers is mostly manifests as canceled rides. Lyft drivers are able to view a passenger’s information before accepting the request, meaning some drivers could simply refuse to accept the trip.
There was some evidence of gender discrimination, too. Female research assistants reported “chatty” drivers who drove extremely long routes, on some occasions even driving through the same intersection multiple times. The study authors say that longer trip times for female passengers are the result of a “combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience.”
Drivers tend to discriminate against passengers at their own risk. Both Uber and Lyft have policies that deactivate drivers if they cancel too many trips. And both say they expressly discourage drivers from discriminating in their community guidelines.
The study authors note that the discrimination they recorded was “not the result of any policy by ride hailing providers, but rather the behavior of individual [transportation network company] drivers.” That said, when you take these findings together with recent evidence of racial discrimination among Airbnb hosts, it seems pretty obvious that the gig economy has a huge race problem.
This has been noted before: Uber and Lyft drivers were accused of “racial redlining” in Dallas earlier this year, meaning customers were being discriminated against based on where they lived. And labor advocates argue that gig economy companies tend to disadvantage their workforces — many of whom are people of color — by eliminating traditional employee protections like a minimum wage and health insurance.
Of course, racial discrimination existed in transportation services long before Uber and Lyft came around. In some ways, the discrimination has just become more technologically adept: rather than pretending they don’t see the black man on the curb with his hand in the air, the driver can instead decide to discriminate against the passenger based on whether his name sounds black.
The findings in this study contradict the image both Uber and Lyft were trying to craft for themselves as antidotes to decades of discrimination by traditional taxis. Uber officials even went so far as to stage a press conference in Harlem several years ago, surrounded by African-American elected officials, to oppose a proposal by the mayor of New York City to impose new restrictions on ride-hailing.
In a statement, a Lyft spokesperson said, “We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color. Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas — which taxis have historically neglected — are now able to access convenient, affordable rides. And we provide this service while maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community, and do not tolerate any form of discrimination.”
Uber’s statement said more of the same. “Ridesharing apps are changing a transportation status quo that has been unequal for generations, making it easier and more affordable for people to get around — no matter who they are or where they live,” said Rachel Holt, head of North American operations for Uber. “Discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber. We believe Uber is helping reduce transportation inequities across the board, but studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more.”
And Flywheel, which is an app to call yellow taxis, said its drivers are different than those that drive for Uber and Lyft. “At Flywheel, we make our priority to monitor wait times and acceptance rates closely,” Oneal Bhambani, president and COO, said in a statement. “As a result, our drivers do not have any predispositions to any one group, ethnic or otherwise. A key difference to note, is that Flywheel caters to licensed taxis, which are typically operated by full-time drivers who have been 'around the block', and rely on their own experience vs. potential preconceived notions.”