Discrimination against African Americans is a common occurrence among ride-hailing services like Uber and Yelp, according to a new study on driver behaviour.
This study, which was published Monday by researchers at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Washington, recorded data from 1,500 rides in Boston and Seattle.
The study used eight research assistants to help them conduct the study: two African American women, two African American men, two white women, and two white men.
The data showed that not only do African American passengers experience longer wait times, they’re subject to higher cancellation rates from drivers.
In Seattle, the riders completed 581 trips that showed there was a 35% increase in wait times for African American riders.
In Boston, the eight riders took 460 trips with Lyft and 451 trips with Uber. For men, the cancellation rate was nearly twice as high for those with “black-sounding” names — 11.2% versus 4.5% for “white-sounding” names. For women, it was 8.4% and 5.4%, respectively.
Overall, the study concluded “that UberX drivers are nearly three times as likely to cancel a ride on a male passenger upon seeing that he has a ‘black-sounding’ name.”
“Using the most direct measure (observed cancellations in Boston) there appears to be evidence that African American passengers receive worse service, compared to white riders, in TNC or ride-hailing based services such as Uber and Lyft,” the authors wrote. “This discrimination is not the result of any policy by ride hailing providers, but rather the behaviour of individual TNC drivers.”
When it comes to Lyft, the study notes one key difference between it and Uber: Uber drivers only see the passenger’s name after they accept the ride, whereas Lyft drivers can see the passenger’s name and photo before accepting the ride. This might explain why Uber has higher cancellation rates compared to Lyft; those drivers might be just as biased, but due to how their system operates, there’s just no way to know as easily.
And so, while there may be drivers who choose not accept rides at all based on a passenger’s race, it’s not as clear from the data: In Boston, all the men faced about the same cancellation rate on Lyft, while women faced a lower cancellation rate when using African American-sounding names. But in Seattle, there wasn’t a major difference in Lyft wait times between African American and white passengers.
The study noted that the findings might not be such a new occurrence: Discrimination has long been rampant among traditional taxi cab drivers as well.
“In our Seattle experiment we found that discrimination within traditional taxi-cab also exists,” the authors write. “The first taxi stopped nearly 60% of the time for white RAs, but less than 20% of the time for African American RAs. Furthermore, 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. These differences are statistically significant.”
We reached out to both Uber and Lyft about this study. Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, said the findings of the study will be helpful for Uber in thinking about how to further tackle discimination.
“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 — no matter who they are or where they live,” Holt said in an emailed 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.”
Lyft also emphasised that it doesn’t tolerate discrimination on its platform.
“We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of colour,” Adrian Durbin, Lyft’s head of policy communications, wrote in an emailed statement. “Because of Lyft, people living 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.”