Uber’s Discrimination Problem Is Bad News for Public Transit

Uber and Lyft may have changed lives in the Big American City, but they’re hardly ubiquitous. Just 15 percent of Americans use these services, according to the Pew Research Center. One-third have never heard of them. The ridesharing giants do have an excellent way to build a bigger, less urban customer base: teaming up with government.

In Florida, in New Jersey, and in Colorado, Uber and Lyft have partnered with municipalities to solve first-mile, last-mile problems, ferrying riders to bus stops, train stations, or even their homes for subsidized fares. The companies also have eyes on disrupting this country’s stretched and expensive paratransit system.

But those ambitions are troubled by a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Washington, and Stanford University, which says Uber and Lyft have a discrimination problem.

In Seattle and Boston, the researchers used Uber and Lyft profiles with “white sounding” and “distinctively black” names to request rides. In Seattle, UberX and Lyft drivers took 16 to 28 percent longer to accept requests from the apparently African-American profiles.

UberX drivers in Boston, who see their passengers’ names and photos only after agreeing to go get them, were twice as likely to cancel a pickup of a black rider while en route, and three times more likely to cancel on an African-American man than a white one. (Lyft did not see the same cancellation effect. The researchers speculate that, because its drivers can see the photos and names of their passengers before they accept the request, discrimination happens before the transaction begins.)

To go with racism, a dose of misogyny: The researchers also found UberX and Lyft drivers take female riders on longer, more expensive trips.

In many cases, these race-related delays are a matter of seconds or a minute. Minor, sure, but enough to be statistically significant and make the services less useful for black customers, says MIT’s Christopher Knittel, who worked on the study.

Discrimination is bad (and illegal) on its face, but Uber and Lyft’s involvement in government services makes these findings especially problematic. The companies can provide cash-strapped municipalities with quick, flexible solutions to their transportation problems. They can even increase ridership on local public transit systems. For governments, the point of working with Uber and Lyft—as with all public transportation—is to help more people get around, regardless of race, gender, disability, or socioeconomic status.

Now, those alliances make the sharing economy’s implicit bias problem a government service’s implicit bias problem.

The wider American public transportation system is far from equitable. Washington, DC, caught criticism for a plan to cut service at stations in predominately black neighborhoods. Boston faces federal civil rights complaints after cutting night service, a move transit advocates say unfairly disadvantages poor and minority riders. And though private, taxi companies have a long and sordid history of discrimination.

“We’re not saying Uber and Lyft are worse than the status quo,” says Knittel. “All we’re saying is that they could be doing better.” Involvement with public transportation systems means they have an even greater obligation to serve everyone equitably. Both Silicon Valley outfits have anti-discrimination policies, but they’re difficult to impose on individual drivers.

We’re not saying Uber and Lyft are worse than the status quo. They could be doing better. MIT researcher Christopher Knittel

For their part, municipalities working with ride-hailing companies say they haven’t seen discrimination problems—but they’re wary. Summit, New Jersey launched a pilot program with Uber last month, offering discounted Uber fares to and from the local train station, instead of pouring money and concrete into a larger parking lot. “Any evidence of racial and gender discrimination would be immediately addressed by our municipality and impact future partnership opportunities,” says Public Information Officer Amy Cairns. Centennial, Colorado, in the midst of a six-month pilot with Lyft, reports the same.

The implications of this paper should still make equity-minded city officials nervous. The researchers suggest some solutions—like nixing the photos and names associated with rider accounts. Lyft spokesperson Adrian Durbin says the company has no plans to do that, and that the company is “extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color.” Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, says “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.”

Which brings up another possible solution: complete transparency. Ride-hail companies collect the data that could confirm or deny biases among drivers (or passengers, for that matter.) Opening that information up to cities can help them see what’s going on—and ponder creative ways to solve it.

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