Uber and Lyft Drivers Discriminate on the Basis of Race in U.S., Finds a Study

Researchers have found that for men with black-sounding names, rides were cancelled more than twice as often as for other men by drivers for Uber Technologies Inc. in Boston. Similarly, compared to white customers, notably longer wait times for a car using Uber and Lyft Inc. were faces by black people in Seattle.

These are but some of the findings of a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington  that were published very recently.

“In many ways, the sharing economy is making it up as they go along. A lot of this is a learning process, and you can’t expect these companies to have everything perfect right out of the gate,” said Christopher Knittel, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an author of the study.

The ways and manes to minimize racial discrimination is being grappled by a new generation of technology companies. Some changes to its policies were proposed by Airbnb Inc. recently after it released an extensive report studying racial bias on the site. More training for its hosts and hiring a more diverse workforce were some of the solutions offered by the home-rental company. E-mails saying they must agree not to discriminate in order to use the site starting next month were sent by the company to customers over the weekend. However, advocates’ calls to remove photos of guests and hosts from its platform have been resisted by Airbnb.

Similarly, names and photos are an issue, believes researchers in the case of ride-hailing apps. Drives are given the means to discriminate against prospective riders by such information. Customer photos to drivers aren’t allowed by Uber. Passengers aren’t required to provide a headshot in Lyft even though it provides photos to drivers. However riders’ names are given to their drivers by both San Francisco-based companies.

“We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color. 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,” said Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft.

Almost 1,500 rides were included in the study conducted in Seattle and Boston. For over six weeks in Seattle, cars were ordered by four black and four white research assistants—split evenly among men and women. On the ride-sharing apps, all used their photos. Riders “whose appearance allowed them to plausibly travel as a passenger of either race,” was a second test that was held in Boston. The researchers said that they used either “African American sounding” or “white sounding” names.

Even though the company penalizes drivers who cancel frequently, Uber drivers disproportionately canceled on riders with black-sounding names, the study found.

“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. 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,” Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, said in an e-mailed statement.

Discrimination in the taxi industry was also observed by the research.

(Adapted from Bloomberg)

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