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Uber, Lyft drivers shamed for 'racial bias' by uni eggheads

Study finds dial-a-car services also tend to overcharge women

Passengers who use Uber and Lyft to dial up rides are often subject to racial and gender discrimination, claim researchers.

A joint study [paywalled] by Stanford, MIT, and Washington University has found that drivers for the smartphone-based car services are more likely to refuse or cancel rides if they believe the passenger is African American. When transporting women, drivers will tend to take longer, more expensive routes than they do when the passengers are men.

The study, carried out by booking and taking a series of trips in both Boston and Seattle, measured:

  • Time needed to have a ride request accepted
  • Wait for a pick-up
  • Likelihood of cancellation
  • Trip time

The participating research assistants booked and took 1,492 total trips in UberX, Lyft, and Flywheel.

The results of those trips suggest that the African American passengers as a whole experienced longer wait times for their rides, and were more likely to have their trips cancelled by the driver – though the study notes that this is easier to gauge with Uber than with Lyft, where the driver is able to see the passenger's name and photo before deciding to take a ride.

Additionally, the researchers found, women as a whole were taken on longer, more costly rides by drivers than men, something the study attributed to "a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience."

The results, the researchers say, suggest that the complaints of discrimination long directed towards taxi drivers and companies should also apply to the ride-sharing services looking to replace them.

"Based on these findings, we theorize that at least some drivers for both UberX and Lyft discriminate on the basis of the perceived race of the traveler," the researchers conclude.

Oddly enough, the one service that did not show any tendency towards discrimination was Flywheel, a service that relies on licensed taxi drivers to staff its fleet. The researchers note, however, that this could be because Flywheel only gets taxi drivers who have already agreed not to discriminate with passengers.

"It is possible that the subset of taxi drivers who opt into using it are less inclined to discriminate than those who do not opt in," the paper notes. "Perhaps taxi drivers inclined to discriminate find it easier to do so by looking at would-be passengers on the street."

Flywheel also had the longest times for both trip acceptance and pick-up among the three studied services.

The study suggests that some steps could be taken to anonymize passenger information (such as replacing pictures and names with a single-use code), and increasing penalties for cancelling rides could lower instances of discrimination.

Additionally, the study suggests that having set prices for trips between specific destinations can lower the instances of women being charged extra.

Ultimately, however, the researchers say that the companies themselves can only do so much to control the behavior of their drivers, who have final say when deciding whether to accept a trip. ®

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