A study conducted by transportation research labs at Stanford, MIT, and the University of Washington has shown that Uber, Lyft, and taxi drivers continue to discriminate based on the ride requester’s race, with black customers waiting significantly longer for a ride and facing more trip cancellations than white customers. The study took place in Seattle and Boston and required research assistants to request trips pre-selected by the researchers to include a variety of neighborhoods.
The study found that black male customers using UberX experience three times more cancellations than white male customers in Boston. In Seattle, black customers experienced wait times from 16 to 28 percent longer than white customers on both UberX and Lyft services.
The researchers weren’t able to study how cancellations affected Lyft riders, because the two services offer different information about the rider to the drivers. “A Lyft driver sees both the name and a photo of the passenger prior to accepting or denying a ride, while UberX drivers see this information only after accepting a request,” the researchers wrote. “We find no effect on cancellations for African-American riders of Lyft because, we surmise, that given that names and photos are visible to the driver prior to acceptance, any discrimination occurs prior to accepting the initial request.”
While Uber drivers can get penalized for canceling too many requests, researcher Don MacKenzie wrote on his blog that “in some cases, drivers would not officially cancel the trip, but would make no attempt to actually pick up the traveler using a ‘black’ name, or would even drive in the opposite direction for 20 minutes or more, until the research assistant canceled the trip.”
The researchers also found that female customers were treated differently than men and were “taken on significantly longer routes than males for the same origin and destination,” according to MacKenzie. He added that women in such situations experience “higher fares, wasted time, and perhaps personal unpleasantness with overly ‘chatty’ drivers.”
Still, the researchers were clear that Uber and Lyft weren’t distinctly worse than taxis. They asked their research assistants (RAs) to hail taxis in certain taxi-heavy parts of Seattle and Boston and count how many available taxis passed them by before one stopped. “The first taxi stopped nearly 60 percent of the time for white RAs, but less than 20 percent of the time for African-American RAs. The white RAs never had more than four taxis pass them before one stopped, but the African-American RAs watched six or seven taxis pass them by in 20 percent of cases.”
There’s a little bit of evidence that UberX has improved wait times for riders over taxi services—the researchers’ paper points out that a 2015 study funded by Uber showed that UberX offered shorter wait times than taxis for customers requesting rides in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. A second study in 2016 looking at neighborhoods in Seattle came up with similar results.
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The researchers admit that “solving” discrimination within Uber and Lyft is difficult. The ride sourcing companies could omit personal information about riders completely, but Stephen Zoepf of Stanford’s Center for Automated Research suggests that this might lead to discrimination manifesting in other ways, such as prejudiced drivers giving lower ratings to black riders after picking them up and skewing how those riders’ ratings appear to other, non-prejudiced drivers.
Also, the researchers strained to offer solutions to discrimination based on drivers refusing to drive into certain neighborhoods.
MacKenzie also suggested that ride-sourcing services like Uber and Lyft could offer pre-set fares for given rides in an attempt to keep drivers from taking riders on indirect routes to increase their fares. This is something Uber began rolling out earlier this summer.
Zoepf also warns that Uber and Lyft can’t yet be considered a replacement for public transportation, in spite of what some cities are saying. In Centennial, Colorado, for example, city authorities teamed up with Lyft to offer free rides to and from a light rail station. At that point, Zoepf argues, municipal governments run the risk of violating the Civil Rights Act. “If, on average, a black Uber passenger waits 15 seconds longer for a ride than a white passenger, does that constitute discrimination? What about 30 seconds? Two minutes? At what point do we say that a disaggregated system is inadequate to provide service to our collective communities?”
In a statement e-mailed to Ars, Uber head of North American Operations Rachel Holt stated, “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.”
Lyft did not respond immediately to Ars’ request for comment.
Zoepf noted that a first step toward smoothing out car hailing iniquities would be for private companies like Uber and Lyft to make their data available to qualified academic institutions. He wrote that this project initiated 1,500 rides and cost $100,000 to complete. “With the collaboration of transportation providers, we could have focused our efforts on analysis rather than data gathering, and our results would have been undoubtedly more revealing and compelling.”
Results of the study were reported in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.