New study shows discrimination on Uber, Lyft platforms

Apparently Airbnb isn’t the only sharing economy company with a bias problem.

Now Uber and Lyft are coming under fire.

African-American passengers wait longer to get rides using the car-hailing apps, and they’re more likely to have their trips canceled, according to a study released Monday by researchers from Stanford, the MIT Sloan School of Management and the University of Washington.

“The patterns of discrimination were quite clear and consistent in both cities – and one can only assume it’s happening all across the country in other markets,” Christopher Knittel, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of management, wrote in a news release. “The study has found major areas of racial discrimination within this new industry. It’s quite concerning.”

The findings come almost two months after Airbnb announced a long list of anti-discrimination measures following revelations that African-American guests had a harder time booking lodging on the home-sharing platform.

The ride-hailing study used research assistants who summoned nearly 1,500 rides using the Uber and Lyft apps in Seattle and Boston. In Seattle, African-American passengers waited about 30 percent longer for an Uber than riders of other racial backgrounds, according to the study. But Lyft was a different story — the study found African-American passengers using the Lyft app didn’t wait longer for a ride. Why? The researchers say that’s still “an open question.”

In Boston, research assistants requested rides using white-sounding names and using African-American-sounding names. On the Uber platform, the chance that a driver would accept a passenger and then subsequently cancel that ride more than doubled when the rider used an African-American name. The difference was greater for men — they had cancellation rates of 11 percent when using African-American names, compared to 5 percent when using white names.

That difference didn’t exist for Lyft riders, the study found. That could be because Lyft drivers see the name and photo of passengers as soon as they request a ride. That allows them to determine the passenger’s race before they accept the ride request — which means they can discriminate by simply ignoring the ride request based on the passenger’s race. Uber, on the other hand, only shows a passenger’s name and picture after the ride request has been accepted. So Uber drivers discriminating on the basis of race must accept and then cancel the ride request.

“Discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber,” Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, wrote in a statement emailed to SiliconBeat. “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.”

Uber drivers guilty of racial or gender discrimination can be permanently booted from the platform, and drivers also can get in trouble for cancelling too many rides.

Lyft also stressed that the company does not tolerate discrimination.

“We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color,” spokesman Adrian Durbin wrote in an email to SiliconBeat. “Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas — which taxis have historically neglected — are now able to access convenient, affordable rides.”

The researchers didn’t ignore the taxi problem — they also found evidence of racial discrimination in that more traditional transportation market. In Seattle, research assistants hailed taxis and counted how often they were ignored. The first taxi stopped nearly 60 percent of the time for white assistants, but less than 20 percent of the time for African-American assistants.

Photo: This file photo taken on March 10, 2016 shows a man checking a vehicle at an Uber ‘Work On Demand’ recruitment event in Los Angeles. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)



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