Discrimination by Uber and Lyft drivers


I have never taken a ride in an Uber or a Lyft service so have no first-hand knowledge of how they compare with regular taxis. But a new paper says that Uber drivers practice discrimination against women and people of color and the type of discrimination was different for women than it was for people of color. This article discusses the contents of the paper.

It found that drivers canceled the rides of black passengers 10.1% of time, while only canceling rides for white-sounding riders at a rate of 4.9%. The numbers were even more astounding in low-density areas, where customers with black-sounding names had their rides canceled three times as often.

The study also found that Boston’s women are being taken for longer, more expensive rides than men, even if they are traveling the same distance.

The paper could not find differences with Lyft drivers but suggested a possible reason for why they could not detect discrimination by Lyft even if they did so at the same rate as Uber.

Although researchers did not uncover the same pattern with Lyft drivers, they have a theory why: Lyft drivers see a customer’s name before they accept a ride, whereas Uber drivers only see the passenger’s face and name after they accept a trip. In other words, Lyft drivers could be discriminating just as often, but there’s no data on whether or not they are.

This raises an interesting question for people of color who are thinking of using one of these two services. Which would you prefer to call? It seems like Lyft would be preferred even if their drivers discriminated at the same rate as Uber because at least you would not feel the sting of being rejected after first being accepted. As for women, they would not know they were being taken for a ride (metaphorically) in either case.

I really don’t know how we can eliminate this kind of discrimination without a wholesale change in people’s attitudes.

The study itself used the common method of using names suggestive of gender and ethnicity to gauge the response. Here is the abstract of the paper but a subscription is required to read it.

Passengers have faced a history of discrimination in transportation systems. Peer transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft present the opportunity to rectify long-standing discrimination or worsen it. We sent passengers in Seattle, WA and Boston, MA to hail nearly 1,500 rides on controlled routes and recorded key performance metrics. Results indicated a pattern of discrimination, which we observed in Seattle through longer waiting times for African American passengers—as much as a 35 percent increase. In Boston, we observed discrimination by Uber drivers via more frequent cancellations against passengers when they used African American-sounding names. Across all trips, the cancellation rate for African American sounding names was more than twice as frequent compared to white sounding names. Male passengers requesting a ride in low-density areas were more than three times as likely to have their trip canceled when they used a African American-sounding name than when they used a white-sounding name. We also find evidence that drivers took female passengers for longer, more expensive, rides in Boston. We observe that removing names from trip booking may alleviate the immediate problem but could introduce other pathways for unequal treatment of passengers.

Comments

  1. mudskipper says

    It would be interested to know why women are being taken for longer and more expensive drives. Possibilities:

    o Women are not members of my tribe (male tribe in this case). Therefore it is okay if I exploit them.
    o Women are inherently lower in the pecking order than men. Therefore it natural they should be disadvantaged in these exchanges.
    o Women are weaker and less aggressive than men. Therefore it is safer to take advantage of them.
    o I enjoy being in this attractive woman’s company. Therefore I’m going to drive her around a little longer. (After all, it is not like a woman would have something more important to do.)

  2. Dunc says

    I really don’t know how we can eliminate this kind of discrimination without a wholesale change in people’s attitudes.

    Do traditional licensed taxi services exhibit this sort of discrimination?

  3. Mano Singham says

    mudskipper,

    I could add other reasons for the drivers taking longer trips with women such as that the drivers think that women have less awareness of maps and directions and thus would not know that their rides were being extended.

  4. AndrewD says

    I believe that here in the UK, such discrimination would be illegal and Black Cab* drivers would lose their license .
    *cabs which stop and pick up on demand as opposed to minicabs which are pre-booked

  5. Dunc says

    Well, that’s disappointing…

    Andrew: while that may technically be true, I suspect that it would be difficult to make it stick… About the only time you could actually prove you’d been discriminated against and get the driver’s number would be if they refused to accept you at a standing taxi rank.

  6. Henry Gale says

    “The study also found that Boston’s women are being taken for longer, more expensive rides than men, even if they are traveling the same distance.”

    I’m not sure if this is possible for Uber. As I understand it, and Uber ride has the route and cost determined at the time the ride is requested/accepted. Taking someone on a longer ride would hurt the driver – not the passenger.

    When I took an Uber to get home from a medical appt the price was quoted up front and the route home was displayed for the driver to follow.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    customers with black-sounding names had their rides canceled three times as often

    This is far from the first time that studies have shown that having a “black sounding name” is a disadvantage in life. Is it ridiculous to ask why people persist in giving their children “black sounding names”? Or, for that matter, why adults who are aware that this kind of discrimination exists don’t simply change their name? If I suspected the sound of my name was causing me material harm I’d consider changing it. But if I had scientific evidence from multiple studies all showing that this was definitely the case, I’d be down to whatever office was required the same day. To do otherwise is to contribute through inaction to your own continued misery. Sure, it’s inconvenient and I’d rather not have to do it, but then so is turning up to work every day.

    The other thing I’d like to know is this: what is the ethnic makeup of the workforce surveyed? Does their ethnic identity affect their discrimination? That is to say: is it exclusively white drivers discriminating against “black sounding names”, or do black drivers do likewise, to a greater or lesser extent? Is it exclusively male drivers discriminating against women in the way described, or do female drivers do the same? The data must be available to answer these obvious questions, and it’s disappointing and slightly suspicious that they’re not part of the report. One has to wonder whether the answers were inconvenient.

  8. NYC atheist says

    @sonofrojblake
    Showing up to pull your weight at the office is not the same as further erasing your heritage.

    Also, it’s old news that oppressed minorities discriminate against each other. Ask any black person about black cops.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    @NYC atheist, 10:

    You’re right, they are not the same. My “heritage” doesn’t pay my mortgage, for instance. Whereas a name that reflects it might stop me getting one in the first place. I guess it depends which is more important to you.

    Black cops are operating in an environment where their behaviour is being scrutinised by their white majority peers and superiors. They have legitimate reason to fear the consequences if they are seen to be soft on black members of the public. At best it could see them ostracised or disciplined, at worst it could see them not get backup when they need it at the cost of their health or life. While overcompensating in the other direction should be condemned, it is at least explicable in terms of the oppressive behaviour of their white colleagues (or their legitimate fear of it).

    Uber/Lyft drivers have no such peer pressure. Nobody really gives a monkey’s who they pick up or don’t. In fact, if I understand the model correctly, turning down pickups more than a certain small amount will have them penalised. But if you have evidence that black Uber drivers are discriminating against black prospective passengers, do point it out.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Henry @#8,

    I wondered about the same thing but since I have never taken either Uber or Lyft, I had no first hand knowledge of exactly how the system works. Could it be that they quote a higher price and/or a longer route if they see that it is a woman requesting the ride?

  11. deepak shetty says

    Is it ridiculous to ask why people persist in giving their children “black sounding names”?

    You can park that question in the same box where you park , why do women go out wearing provocative clothing or why do black people insist on driving cars etc

  12. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    I ride Lyft often and Uber less frequently, but it seems to me that the driver is always using and following the directions of the turn-by-turn GPS app. In order to add unnecessary miles you would have to deliberately go against the GPS, e.g. deliberately overshoot the freeway exit and have to backtrack, or intentionally turn off to a different street. The GPS would keep recalculating, but it would be obvious to anyone in the back seat paying attention.

  13. Holms says

    This is far from the first time that studies have shown that having a “black sounding name” is a disadvantage in life. Is it ridiculous to ask why people persist in giving their children “black sounding names”?

    Yes. Massively obnoxious in fact.

  14. anat says

    This is far from the first time that studies have shown that having a “black sounding name” is a disadvantage in life. Is it ridiculous to ask why people persist in giving their children “black sounding names”?

    Suppose the parents give the kid a typical ‘white-sounding’ name. The kid gets an interview, and then the kid shows up and the racist person who does the interview sees that the person with the ‘white sounding’ name is in fact black, and they don’t give them the job. Having a ‘black-sounding’ name cuts to the chase – you get fewer interviews, but the interviews you don’t get are unlikely to be successful anyway. It’s a time-saving strategy.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    @deepak shetty, 13: Black people have as much right to drive cars as anyone else, and suggesting they should simply choose not to in order to avoid negative consequences is ridiculous. That would self-evidently be an intolerable infringement of their rights. It’s not even in the same ballpark as suggesting they’d be doing their child a favour if they call him “David” rather than “DeShawn”. I mean, just how humiliating and inconvenient is it to be called “David”? Didn’t seem to do Dave Chapelle any harm.

    @anat, 16: You sound like you’re in favour of saving racists time and effort.

  16. Saad says

    sonofrojblake, #17

    @deepak shetty, 13: Black people have as much right to drive cars as anyone else, and suggesting they should simply choose not to in order to avoid negative consequences is ridiculous. That would self-evidently be an intolerable infringement of their rights. It’s not even in the same ballpark as suggesting they’d be doing their child a favour if they call him “David” rather than “DeShawn”. I mean, just how humiliating and inconvenient is it to be called “David”? Didn’t seem to do Dave Chapelle any harm.

    You thought you could get away with ignoring deepak’s women wearing certain types of clothing analogy.

    It makes sense that you’d be the type to victim blame though. Not surprised by that whatsoever.

  17. Henry Gale says

    @Mano #8

    With Uber the booking process takes place entirely in the app before the driver arrives. In fact, the driver doesn’t set the price. Uber does using an algorithm based on distance, time of day, and demand.

  18. anat says

    sonofrojblake, no, I was arguing for saving time and effort for the minority kid. They don’t have to waste time interviewing with someone who will reject them on sight by pre-screening for those who don’t mind talking to someone with a conspicuous name. Repeated rejection is incredibly exhausting.

  19. sonofrojblake says

    Saad, #20: you thought you could get away with ignoring… well, the entire content of #17. It makes sense that you’d be the type to try to alter the focus when you sense you’ve not got a good answer. Not surprised by that whatsoever.

    anat, #22: That discounts the possibility that, once they have a “foot in the door”, the interviewer would give them a chance to impress.

    There’s a book that did quite well in the UK based on a blog by a schoolteacher. The book is called “It’s Your Own Time You’re Wasting”, and among many short anecdotes about the nightmare nonsense of teaching in British schools, there is the “Top Set Bottom Set Game”. This is a game teachers supposedly play at the beginning of term in the staff room. One teacher reads out two lists of children’s first names. One list is the names of all the children in the top set – the brightest and best. The other list is the children in the bottom set – the thickest and worst. However, they don’t tell you which is which – the game is, you have to guess. The point is – you always get it right. The top set – the kids you can generally rely on to be relatively easy to manage, who will pay attention and do their homework – can be relied upon to be mainly composed of kids with names like David, Michael, Andrew, Elizabeth, Anne, Catherine. Not exclusively, obvs – but reliably enough. Conversely, the bottom set – the ones whose behaviour will be harder to manage and whose attainment is going to be much lower – can reasonably be expected to be composed of names like Kevin, Darren, Wayne, Kylie, Chenise, and so on. Judging people by their name works, not in individual cases obviously (outliers exist at the top and bottom), but in the mass. And of all the things you can do to give your child a leg up in life, giving them a name that won’t disadvantage them is surely the easiest.

  20. anat says

    If the ‘foot in the door’ effect is small enough it isn’t worth the heartache of repeated rejection.

    As for the names of students – how does the grouping change over time? There are trends in naming. A name can start out as a rare name among the trend-setting class, then years later it is a common name, and the trend-setters no longer use it. (I understand that in the US the trend-setters tend to be high-income, in Israel I’d say they are school teachers.)

  21. sonofrojblake says

    it isn’t worth the heartache of repeated rejection

    That’s a judgement each person has to make. Personally, I’d prefer to have as many advantages as possible, and to take advantage of every opportunity possible, no matter how slim my chances. What’s the alternative? Accepting failure? Nah thanks.

    how does the grouping change over time?

    Not wishing to over-analyse what is a short anecdote: the impression given is that rather point is that the average high school top set group doesn’t change much over time, which is one of the things that gives it away. The kids who do well tend to come from families who don’t look to reality TV for the names of their kids. Their names are mainly drawn from a bunch that wouldn’t have looked out of place fifty or two hundred years previously.

    Look at this bunch of names: George, William, George, Ronald, James, Gerald, Richard. Compare that list with George, John, Thomas, James, James, John, Andrew. Could you guess, if you didn’t know, which of those groups of men was from the last forty years, and which was from two HUNDRED years ago? (They’re all Presidents of the US).

    Or try these: Robert, George, Frederick, Arthur, Charles, William. Compare with David, Gordon, Anthony, John, James, Harold, Edward. Which of those are the most recent bunch and which were early 19th century? Clue: I had to leave “Margaret” out of the second list to make it harder. (UK Prime Ministers).

  22. anat says

    Again, you don’t appreciate the value of pre-screening. You are not accepting failure for your kid, you are increasing the odds that their success will be in a place where they are relatively safer.

    I don’t think there was anybody in my kid’s suburban high school year who shared a name with a recent US president. Those names are no longer ‘in’ around here. The name ‘Steven/Stephen’ had a brief period of popularity, hence a well-defined generation of very familiar scientists named ‘Steve’ (Steve Pinker wrote about the phenomenon, also related to Project Steve for publicizing support for the Theory of Evolution).

    Look, I grew up in a culture that emphasized rebellion against the past. Even religious people want to avoid names that would look like they fit anywhere in the 19th century (at least not before the 1880s). Each decade brings a wave of new names that were never used before, and some stick around. Another trend is to renew names that haven’t been in use since biblical times (religious people prefer names of characters traditionally considered ‘good’, secular people prefer names with meanings they like). My handle became popular when Ugaritic documents about the goddess with that name became popularly known, though nowadays I doubt parents using the name know or care about its origins. So the idea of sticking to an old-fashioned name sounds weird to me.

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