Uber has long claimed it can solve a problem that has vexed conventional taxis: drivers who discriminate. But it turns out that might not be true, according to a new study from the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research which shows that black Uber users often don’t get the same service as whites.
Researchers from Stanford University, the University of Washington, and MIT ran experiments in Seattle and Boston to test how frequently UberX, Lyft, and Flywheel drivers canceled rides and kept customers waiting, and then broke down the results by race and gender.
While the research indicated “some” discrimination on Lyft (and not much on Flywheel), there was a “statistically significant” amount happening on UberX, tracking primarily to the users’ names.
“There is some evidence that it takes longer for trip requests from African-Americans to be accepted across [UberX, Lyft, and Flywheel],” the study’s authors wrote. “The results for estimated wait times suggest that this is not driven by systematic differences in routes or the timing of requests. We also find statistically significant longer wait times for African-Americans riding UberX. “
The first experiment the researchers ran was in Seattle, and it focused on how long black and white users waited for their rides. The results: “African-American travelers waited approximately 30 percent longer to be picked up than did white travelers when using UberX, even after adjusting for differences in estimated waiting time,” the study said.
Because Uber and Lyft operate differently — Uber drivers have to accept fares in order to see passenger information, whereas Lyft drivers can just decline the trip — the researchers determined that cancellations would be a more effective measure than waiting times of how black Uber passengers are served by drivers.
That’s why when the study authors ran their second experiment, this time in Boston, they focused on cancellation rates, and again found evidence of discrimination on Uber.
“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,” the study said. “In these extreme cases drivers are more than four times as likely to cancel on a African-American male passenger than on a white male passenger,” the study said.
In a statement emailed to VICE News, Uber head of North American operations Rachel Holt said that “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 spokesperson Adrian Durbin said over email that the company is “extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color.”
The study authors acknowledge that taxi drivers also discriminate heavily against black customers, and they tested hailing cabs in Seattle as well. The first taxi they attempted to hail stopped nearly 60 percent of the time for white riders but less than 20 percent of the time for black riders.
And while Uber may be quick to point to this and other data that favorably compares UberX and Lyft to taxis when it comes to discrimination, that’s not necessarily a fair comparison; Uber CEO Travis Kalanick talks about Uber and its plans for a self-driving fleet as a way of augmenting and perhaps replacing mass transit, not just yellow cabs.
“By literally picking up where mass transit drops off, ride-sharing extends the reach of our public transportation systems,” Kalanick wrote in the Wall Street Journal this past June, without specifying where the company plans to extend that reach.