Researchers suggest anonymity for passengers hailing a ride as a possible solution.
October 31, 2016 — 6:00 AM EDT October 31, 2016 — 1:51 PM EDT
Drivers for Uber Technologies Inc. in Boston canceled rides for men with black-sounding names more than twice as often as for other men. Black people in Seattle using Uber and Lyft Inc. faced notably longer wait times to get paired with drivers than white customers. The findings come from a study published on Monday by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington.
"In many ways, the sharing economy is making it up as they go along," said Christopher Knittel, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an author of the study. "A lot of this is a learning process, and you can't expect these companies to have everything perfect right out of the gate."
A new generation of technology companies have begun to grapple with how they can minimize racial discrimination. Airbnb Inc. recently released an extensive report studying racial bias on the site and proposed some changes to its policies. The home-rental company committed to offering more training for its hosts and hiring a more diverse workforce. It sent e-mails to customers over the weekend saying they must agree not to discriminate in order to use the site starting next month. However, Airbnb has resisted advocates' calls to remove photos of guests and hosts from its platform.
In the case of ride-hailing apps, researchers similarly believe that names and photos are an issue. Such information gives drivers the means to discriminate against prospective riders. Uber doesn't show customer photos to drivers. Lyft does, but passengers aren't required to provide a headshot. Both San Francisco-based companies give riders' names to their drivers.
"We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color," said Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft. "Because of Lyft, people in underserved areas—which taxis have historically neglected—are now able to access convenient, affordable rides. And we provide this service while maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community, and do not tolerate any form of discrimination."
The study, conducted in Seattle and Boston, included almost 1,500 rides. Four black and four white research assistants—split evenly among men and women—ordered cars over six weeks in Seattle. All used their photos on the ride-sharing apps. A second test was held in Boston with riders "whose appearance allowed them to plausibly travel as a passenger of either race," although they used either "African American sounding" or "white sounding" names, the researchers said. The study found that Uber drivers disproportionately canceled on riders with black-sounding names, even though the company penalizes drivers who cancel frequently.
“Ridesharing apps are changing a transportation status quo that has been unequal for generations, making it easier and more affordable for people to get around,” Rachel Holt, Uber's head of North American operations, said in an e-mailed statement. “Discrimination has no place in society and no place on Uber. 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.”
The research also observed discrimination in the taxi industry—a well-known, decades-old issue. The paper doesn't compare the rate of discrimination between traditional drivers for taxis or ride-hailing apps. Uber has suggested that it doesn't offer tips in its app, as many drivers have asked for, because they can introduce racial biases.
Lyft and Uber face different issues. While researchers found that drivers took noticeably longer to accept ride requests from black men on both services in Seattle, total wait times were the same for both races on Lyft. On Uber, total wait times were longer for black men. Drivers using Lyft didn't cancel on black riders disproportionately, but the researchers said that because Lyft shows riders' names and faces upfront, its drivers could simply screen out black passengers. Uber doesn't show names until after the driver accepts the fare. "In Lyft, you can discriminate without ever having to accept and hit cancel," Knittel said.
The researchers proposed changes that Uber and Lyft could make to reduce discrimination, including not identifying passengers' names, more severe repercussions for drivers who cancel after accepting a ride and periodic reviews of drivers' behavior to look for racism. However, Knittel acknowledged in an interview that there are advantages to providing personal information, such as creating a friendlier and more efficient experience. "There's a trade-off here," he said. "There is a potential benefit from showing names and photos, and yeah, I think we would agree with that. These companies have to weigh those two effects."
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While conducting the study, researchers also observed that women were sometimes taken on significantly longer rides than men. "Other female riders reported 'chatty' drivers who drove extremely long routes, on some occasions, even driving through the same intersection multiple times. As a result, the additional travel that female riders are exposed to appears to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience," the researchers wrote. The paper floats a possible solution to that problem: upfront fares—something Uber has already begun to roll out.
The authors of the study, along with Knittel, were Don MacKenzie, an assistant professor at University of Washington; Yanbo Ge, a doctoral student at the same Seattle-based university; and Stephen Zoepf, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford.