Uber and Lyft might be disrupting the taxi industry, but their utopian vision doesn't include a vision to end to racism. In fact, discrimination in these unregulated ride-hailing services is worse than it is for other kinds of transportation. To find out just how much discrimination there is in these internet taxi services, researchers sent passengers on nearly 1,500 rides across Seattle and Boston.
Or at least they tried to. Many of the drivers didn't even pick up clients with names that sounded too black.
"Across all trips, the cancellation rate for African American sounding names was more than twice as frequent compared to white sounding names," says the study. "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."
Not only that, but drivers took female clients on longer, more expensive trips in Boston, and in Seattle, African American customers had to wait up to 35% longer than average for their ride.
Regular taxi drivers would probably be just as bad as Uber and Lyft's unlicensed cab drivers, but the law compels them to treat everyone equally. "Taxi drivers in most cities are required to pick up any passenger while on duty, and taxi drivers are reminded of this obligation," say the authors. Even so, enforcement is hard. And the app-hailed ride services have another barrier to lower-income customers—they require a credit card to use, whereas anyone can hop into normal taxi and pay with cash.
Lyft and Uber differ in the way their drivers accept a ride request. Whereas Lyft shows the name and the photo of the rider in the initial request, Uber only sees this information after accepting a ride. So Lyft drivers can just ignore black customers, whereas Uber drivers have to actually cancel an already-agreed ride.
In Boston, the study checked on this aspect, and found that "the probability a driver accepts a ride, but then subsequently cancels the ride, more than doubles for African American riders of UberX." This didn't happen with Lyft, presumably because racist drivers just ignored African American riders in favor of whiter passengers.
The study itself is huge, and detailed, but everything points to one conclusion. Plenty of people are racist, including the people driving Lyfts and Ubers. And without a way to police this discrimination, it's hard to prevent. In fact, it's almost impossible for the regular customer even to detect, especially with Lyft's selection process.
The findings do mirror similar discrimination found on other platforms. A study published in June found that Airbnb guests with distinctively African-American names were accepted by hosts 16% less often. This week, Airbnb changed its terms of service so that all hosts must sign an anti-discrimination agreement. It also says it now encourages hosts to allow more automatic booking (where the hosts don't screen guests first) and says it will punish hosts that seem to reject guests "improperly." It's possible that Uber could take a cue from Airbnb's actions.