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.