An academic report published Monday has found what many Uber and Lyft users already know firsthand: Both apps have instances of racist drivers declining to pick up their black fares.
According to the New York Times, researchers studied around 1,500 combined trips in Seattle and Boston, with both African Americans and white test subjects hailing separate rides with both services.
“We found that African-American travelers in Seattle experienced statistically significantly longer delay waiting for a trip request through UberX or Lyft to be accepted,” said the researchers, from the University of Washington, M.I.T. and Stanford.
“We theorize that at least some drivers for both UberX and Lyft discriminate on the basis of the perceived race of the traveler.”
This spells big trouble for the two services, both of which largely built their brands on the premise that their apps would eliminate the possibility of such bias.
— Harry Siegel (@harrysiegel) November 1, 2016
Instead, passengers with black-sounding names were found to have their trips cancelled by drivers twice as often as passengers with white-sounding names. When the riders are men with black-sounding names, the number jumps to three times as often.
Uber and Lyft drivers see information about potential fares in different ways. Uber drivers don’t have any information about their riders before accepting them, but they can cancel them once their names become available; Lyft drivers, on the other hand, have access to names and photos before accepting, meaning they can opt out of picking up whoever they want.
Researchers also found that drivers took longer to accept ride requests from black men using both apps, though total wait times were the same for both races using Lyft. On Uber, wait times were longer for black men.
Similar instances of discrimination have have plagued Airbnb, where people with black-sounding names found it harder to book apartments and rooms. But Airbnb took swift action to curb racism in its services, instating a strict anti-discrimination statute that includes a bias-detection team, less-obvious personal photos, and the company hiring a more-diverse staff. The site also committed to helping users who experienced discrimination find new accommodations at the last minute. But Uber and Lyft have the additional roadblock of operating in an industry known for racism.
While the outcome of the study certainly isn’t positive, neither is the reality when it comes to street hails. As quoted in Slate:
The first taxi stopped nearly 60% of the time for white RAs, but less than 20% 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% of cases.
Writing for Medium, Jenna Wortham saw presciently this problem coming, even in the heady days of 2014 while everyone was still lauding the rise of ride-share apps as the anti-discrimination savior we’d been waiting for.
“It’s also not entirely clear that Uber’s system is completely foolproof,” she wrote. “Because drivers can reject riders for any reason, you have no way of knowing whether it’s because of your rating, your name (from which race can often be inferred), or the neighborhood you’re in.”
Troublingly, though, neither Uber nor Lyft have yet hatched any plan to address the issue of racist drivers. Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, told the Times there was “no place for racism on the company’s online platform,” though it has no plans to alter how it functions.
“Studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more,” she told the paper vaguely.
Lyft similarly offered a flat statement about how the company does not “tolerate any form of discrimination.”
Amazing how a problem just vanishes when you simply deny its existence.